Issue 39

Summer's End

Summer's End

Bill Leebens

Welcome to Copper #39!

For many of us, it's almost time for the kids to head back to school. For those of us who've passed those years, it's almost time to curse the congestion caused by all those damn schoolbuses.....

I'm happy to introduce another new feature to Copper, starting with this issue. Charles Rodrigues contributed cartoons with a perverse audiophile bent to Stereo Review for decades, actually starting way back when it was Hi-Fi Review (he also contributed some truly sick stuff to National Lampoon in the '70's, but let's forget that for the moment). We've secured the rights to reprint Rodrigues' Stereo Review cartoons, and will be reprinting one in each issue. For those who remember Rodrigues' work, enjoy! And for our younger readers who may not know him---welcome to the club!

Dan Schwartz leads off the issue with a tale of The Great Wall---no, not the one in China... the one used by the Grateful Dead; Seth Godin deals with the drama of a dead stereo; Richard Murison looks back at Shostakovich and Soviet Whack-a-Mole; Duncan Taylor tells about all the pesky decisions involved in his new recording venue; Roy Hall tells another interesting tale of his travels;  Anne E. Johnson introduces indie group Sunflower Bean; Woody Woodward looks at the influence of Syd Barrett; and I write about the cosmic weirdness of audio, and how the hipsters are screwing things up.

Industry News tells of yet another turn in the tale of Neil Young and Pono/Xstream/whatever;  Something Old/Something New examine's 1970's Nilsson Sings Newman; John Seetoo is back with an annotated interview with recording engineer Dennis Ferrante; I take a look around the California Audio Show; and Jim Smith looks at the thorny issue of spikes. We wrap up Copper #39 with another beautiful Parting Shot from Paul McGowan.

Until nest issue—enjoy!

Cheers, Leebs.

The California Audio Show Part 1

The California Audio Show Part 1

The California Audio Show Part 1

Bill Leebens

The Ninth California Audio Show took place July 26-28 at the Hilton Oakland Airport, which has been the hosting venue for the last few years. Our reports on the 2017 CAS can be seen here and here; and on the 2018 show, here and here.

As the hotel’s name suggests, the Hilton is a stone’s throw from the Oakland Airport, and is readily accessible from several interstates. While the location might lack the glamour of San Francisco, it also avoids the costs, parking nightmares, and the hemmed-in between newly-erected highrises feeling that’s so much a part of SF these days.

The setting for the show is surprisingly quiet considering how close the airport is—you can look out doorways at the ends of hallways and see planes taxiing down runways. The hotel grounds have plenty of trees and plantings, which offer the chance to escape small exhibit rooms and get a breath of fresh air. As mentioned in previous reports, the show is notable for a congenial, relaxed vibe, and exhibitors comment on the serious and well-informed nature of the attendees. People who actually BUY things. >gasp<

There were a few changes in the show layout this year: previously, registration, the marketplace and a few large exhibit rooms were in a building which also houses the bar and restaurant, while the majority of the exhibits were housed separately in Building V. This year, everything was housed in Building V, which also contained most sleeping rooms. The first floor had registration and the marketplace in the Empire Room; seminars in the Forum Room; five largish exhibits in Boardrooms 1-5; and finally, six regular exhibit rooms (standard hotel rooms with furniture removed). The second floor had nine regular exhibit rooms.

That gives a room-count of only 20 exhibit rooms, in addition to the marketplace and seminar area. But: having everything located in one building gave the impression of a very busy show indeed, and exhibitors I spoke with were pleased by the turnout. Both Friday and Saturday had hallways and popular destinations crowded all day; things were lighter on Sunday…which was helpful for photography.

Enough whining! On to the rooms!

The marketplace had the predictable—sellers of records and record-cleaners—and a few unexpected twists.

Like industry legend John Curl in registration...PAYING to get in? Come ON! He's a national treasure!!
When it comes to audio shows, Charles Kirmuss's record cleaners are almost as ubiquitous as Lyn Stanley. Almost.
Audio biz veteran Steve Holt was there again with LPs from his store, The Audio Nerd.
...along with a youngish demographic, there was longtime vendor, Reference Recordings...

…as well as Enmusic, dealers in Asian specialty recordings.

In previous years, Pass Labs electronics were everywhere. This year, not a piece of Pass was to be seen, but it seemed like Aurender server/streamers were everywhere. Brian Ackerman’s Aaudio Imports had an Aurender feeding Ypsilon electronics and Wilson Benesch Act One speakers. That spare tire on the floor is the WB Torus “infrasonic generator and amplifier”—in other words, a powered sub. I’ve enjoyed bigger WB speakers in the past, but this set-up seemed a little edgy to me, perhaps attributable to the Ypsilons. I was also disappointed by the lack of impact of the Torus’ output; the generally-powerful timpani strikes in “Fanfare for the Common Man” seemed very light indeed.

Across the hall, Audio Federation had a familiar set-up with Audio Note UK driving big Acapella speakers with ionic tweeters. I'm fond of the Acapellas, but to my ears they needed more power and amps that provide a tighter grip. The Margules Audio room next door has generally been one of my favorites, featuring their own tube amps and multi-way speakers. Vintage Verve jazz recordings were reproduced with grace, space, and pace---as they used to say about Jaguars. There were also a few appearances by the she's-everywhere songbird Lyn Stanley, who discussed a recent recording. She may have sung, as well.  There were four rooms at the show in which I would have happily stayed for a good long while, thanks to a combination of expertly paired and demonstrated gear, good music, and amiable pros doing the presentation. Dealer Tim Marutani’s room was the first of the three; big MartinLogan electrostats and subs were powered by Nick Doshi’s wonderful tube amps, and tapes from the Tape Project were played back on a refurbished Ampex ATR reel-to-reel. The sound was effortless and edgeless, but still had plenty of impact and the delightful sense of reality that only the best systems can manage. I’m not usually a fan of MLs, but they sounded terrific here—whether it was the expert set-up of longtime rep Dennis Chern, the tubes, the tapes—whatever, it all worked together. It came as no surprise that the Aurender room featured their top of the line W20SE server; what was a surprise was that the speakers were Aurender, as well. The prototype S88 speakers featured ceramic drivers, and paired with the big Berkeley DAC and Constellation amps, produced a civilized, polished sound with none of the nasties sometimes found in "projects". Pairings of Whammerdyne tube amps and Pure Audio Project speakers are always interesting, although the results have varied a great deal. The amps are all 2A3 based, one model single-ended, another features a pair of 2A3s in parallel in each channel. One interesting feature of the upper models is what the Whammer folks call "Remote Advanced Magnetics"---output transformers divorced from the main chassis, connected by umbilicals. The claimed benefits are lowered noise and EMI, allowing greater dynamic headroom. The Pure Audio speakers are all modular open-baffle designs, but the ones I've seen have ranged from tall 3-ways with horns and Heil AMTs (!), to 2-ways with cone drivers---and frankly, I'm not sure what all was in the "Classic" 15 speakers in this system. They didn't look like open baffles, and all that could be seen was the back of one driver in the rear of the cabinet. I didn't get the sense of power and ease that the best Whammer/PAP systems have provided in the past. I've previously enjoyed Tidal speakers at CAS and elsewhere. This year I seemed to have become sensitized to a certain edginess in the Bricasti electronics heard in this system and two others. Combined with the too-big-for-the-room syndrome, I just didn't love this system the way I expected to. The modular casework of Wyred 4 Sound products is familiar, but like Aurender, the company had a surprise speaker. Like all the W4S products, the $6,000 TempuS speakers provided a lot for their price: a separate 12" woofer in a heavy ported cabinet formed the base, while the upper cabinet held dual 8" mids and 2 high-power ribbon tweeters with neodymium magnets. Total system cost was $25k, less than the cost of cables in several exhibit rooms. Sound quality was balanced, punchy, and enjoyable. I had hoped that my second exposure to the peculiar Unisinger speakers---are they ashtrays? Fire extinguishers??---would provide a better impression than I received last year. It did not. Fortunately, outside that sad little room I encountered Cookie Marenco, one of my favorite human beings on Earth. For the pic I forced her into a tight shot with another legendary recordist, Prof. Keith Johnson---who seemed delighted by the pose. Wrapping up the first floor was a system consisting of server and DAC from new-to-me Musica Practica, with a Benchmark amp and speakers by Selah Audio. The server and DAC seemed promising, but ---whether it was the amp or the speakers, I couldn't be sure---the music seemed trapped inside the speaker cabinets. I stayed for several cuts to be sure, but things didn't improve It was time to go outside and get a beer. Or several.

Issue 39

Issue 39

Issue 39

Paul McGowan

Nilsson Sings Newman

Bill Leebens

Harry Nilsson

Album: Nilsson Sings Newman

LP, 8-track, Cassette

Original Release: RCA Victor Records, February, 1970

I don’t know about you, but considering something that happened forty-seven years ago, and which I remember with crystalline clarity—is terrifying. I don’t have that level of awareness of last night’s dinner.

So: my older  brother Chuck worked at and subsequently managed stores for the late and not-entirely-lamented Discount Records chain. Don’t bother Googling them: it was a chain owned by Columbia Records, likely in violation of all manner of anti-trust regulations, and which vanished from both commerce and memory decades ago. Oh, well.

The deal in the early ’70’s was that I heard a LOT of current releases on demo discs, and everything else at ridiculous discounts. Thus I was introduced to John Prine, Dan Hicks, Harry Partch, The Goon Show, Edgard Varese, and pretty much everything in between. The favorites of my teen years were The Mothers, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Martin Mull, and The Move. Needless to say: my tastes in music didn’t help get me invited to many parties. Even in an allegedly-avant-garde college town, rolling one’s eyes at the Doobie Brothers didn’t win friends.

There are honestly not many records which appealed to me as a 14-year-old that I can listen to now without extreme embarrassment. Nilsson Sings Newman is one of the very few.  Released in 1970, NSN has a directness and purity rarely heard again in the intervening half-century.

Half-century. OMG.

Anyway: by 1970, Randy Newman was largely known only  in LA as the talented, sardonic songwriting nephew of the Newman clan—his uncles were Alfred, Lionel, and Emil Newman of movie-score fame— and had released one album in 1968, Randy Newmanwhich was a critical success but a commercial flop. That album introduced a number of songs that would be associated with Newman for decades, including “Love Story” (remembered largely for the chorus “you and me, you and me, babe”,  popularized in a deodorant ad, of all things), “Davy the Fat Boy” (which presaged the tongue-in-cheek snark of 1977’s “Short People”), and most importantly, the heart-rending “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”. The problem was that Randy Newman—the album—was not exactly a polished, radio-ready product, even in the heyday of album-rock FM radio.

Originally intended as a radio promo, the album was an uneasy mix of live recordings of Newman’s piano and shaky vocals, with bombastic Spector-ish instrumental overdubs that didn’t really fit. Rather than overcoming Newman’s deficiencies as a performer, the arrangements emphasized them. Of the 11 cuts on the album, the initially-stripped down “I Think It’s…” is the most affecting…until the syrupy strings kick in. The album was produced by—or over-produced by—Van Dyke Parks with all his customary Americana tweeness, assisted by Newman’s childhood friend Lenny Waronker, whose father founded Liberty Records. Waronker the younger started as an A&R guy at Warner Brothers Records, and ultimately became president. During his time at Warner’s he championed a number of idiosyncratic artists—including Newman.

Harry Nilsson, on the other hand, was heralded by the Beatles as their favorite singer (and years later, John Lennon and Nilsson’s drunken escapades became the stuff of legend and dismay). His intensely-chipper early records proved that his label, RCA, didn’t know quite what to do with their amazing boy tenor—and then in 1969, Nilsson came to prominence with his cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, featured in the movie Midnight Cowboy. And then, as the saying goes, everything changed.

Following the ironic success of “Everybody’s Talkin'”—ironic because both Neil and Nilsson were singer-songwriters, and the hit utilized only half the talents of each— Nilsson was given the freedom to make whatever, which RCA undoubtedly hoped would yield a mega-hit.

The result was Nilsson Sings Newman, and while it was not a hit, it was a work of great worth;  Stereo Review named it their Album of the Year. The hit would come a year later in the form of 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, which yielded another cover hit with Badfinger’s “Without You”,  the novelty hit “Coconut”, and “Jump Into the Fire”, notable for Herbie Flowers’ subterranean bass solo (Flowers also played the double-tracked bass on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”).

But I digress.

The 10 tracks of the original release of NSN  range from the silly (“Yellow Man”, “The Beehive State”) to the sweetly nostalgic (“Caroline”, “Vine Street”, “Dayton Ohio 1903”), to the plaintively wistful and melancholy (“Cowboy”, “Living Without You”). Where Newman’s versions of the same songs often seemed throw-away and sardonic to the point of bitterness, Nilsson’s versions were contemplative and tempered the edge of the lyrics with sweetness and restraint. Rather than lessening the effect of Newman’s lyrics and often-mournful melodies, Nilsson’s careful, balanced handling emphasized their inherent  humanity, which Newman often seemed determined to deny.

For those who only knew Nilsson from “Everybody’s Talkin'”, NSN could be either revelation or disappointment. Nilsson’s vocals on the album are quietly spectacular, displaying his artful phrasing and tremendous range without, somehow, being showy. Newman is, as always, Newman; his songs here feature the combination of arch observation and  Copelandesque nostalgia that would become his trademark, particularly in his film scores. The style is not for everyone, especially if the only previous acquaintance with Newman’s work is through what I think of as Newman Lite, his later family-friendly film work such as Toy Story. It is more a collection of  lieder, art songs, rather than pop songs, despite the many memorable, hummable melodies .

Nilsson said that Newman was bored once his piano tracks and Nilsson’s basic vocals were laid down: “[he was] tired of the album when we were finished making it. For him it was just doing piano and voice … over and over.”  Nilsson said that “once I got the take down, I knew what I was going to do with it later. He didn’t.” And what Nilsson did was overdub as many as 118 harmonies on the cuts. Remarkably, the effect was to enhance the songs, not overwhelm them or spotlight them as in-studio assemblages.

I don’t know what else to say. The album will either appeal or it won’t. It’s not the sort of showy, overwhelming work that would work well in 3-minute AM radio snippets; it’s a slow burn that rewards repeated listenings with gentle satisfaction and admiration of its artful restraint. It’s certainly not an audiophile spectacular, and the original Dynaflex pressings were often warp-prone and noisy.

It’s an odd thing to say, but I think of the album as a friend. As in the case of any long-term friendship, I can not encounter it for years, and then immediately pick up the conversation with it as though we had seen one another every single day.

I can’t think of any higher praise than that.

[ Fun fact: the album’s surreally nostalgic cover was by Dean Torrence, better known as half of Jan & Dean. Torrence had dozens of album cover credits during the ’70’s and ’80’s, often listed as his corporate entity, Kitty Hawk Graphics.]





An Alpine Valley

An Alpine Valley

An Alpine Valley

Paul McGowan

Neil Young—Yet Again!

Neil Young—Yet Again!

Neil Young—Yet Again!

Bill Leebens

Neil Young may be dedicated to communicating with his fan community, but the fragmented, hit-and-miss way in which he does it makes it difficult to assemble a coherent narrative of what, exactly, he’s up to. Way back in May, Industry News in  Copper #32 reported Neil’s announcement that Pono was essentially dead—no surprise there, as the service’s online store disappeared back in July, 2016—and Young would be starting a new streaming service called Xstream, dedicated to adaptive high-resolution streaming.

Xstream is not yet live, but Young periodically releases bits of information—and not in the usual here’s-a-press-release way. This message was posted on Young’s Facebook page on July 15th:

“Streaming has ended for me. I hope this is ok for my fans.

“It’s not because of the money, although my share (like all the other artists) was dramatically reduced by bad deals made without my consent.

“It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. I don’t feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans. It’s bad for my music.

“For me, It’s about making and distributing music people can really hear and feel. I stand for that.

“When the quality is back, I’ll give it another look. Never say never.

“Neil Young.”

Since then, there have been no formal announcements on the member-only Pono community, but Young’s intentions have been revealed on a new website, neilyoungarchives.com. In a message posted recently on the site, Young said that the archives will be the exclusive online source for his music, starting with his first recording from 1963 (!!), all the way through to the present day. All will be delivered in Xstream adaptive streaming, supposedly delivering the highest quality signal possible over any connection.

Young recently announced the forthcoming release of Hitchhiker, an album from 1976 which has never previously seen the light of day. Young indicated that there would be much more previously-unreleased material that would appear on the Archives website, along with full production notes on each piece.

Given the massive catalog of Young’s work, this promises to be a huge project— and no details have been released as to the cost of Xstream, when material will begin to appear, or any other details of how the service will operate.

Given Young’s track record with Pono, it’s safe to bet that Xstream will take a while to appear…if it appears at all.

I hate to be skeptical, but consider the source.

Spiking Your Speakers: What’s the Point?

Jim Smith

Before we get started, a big IMO should go in front of the next sentence.…

Spikes are NOT loudspeaker isolation devices.  They are tuning devices.

They will always “lean out” the sound.  True isolation devices will yield a fuller, more realistic sound with better dynamics (critical for maximum musical involvement).  Leaning out the bass reduces the dynamics & tone that the performer & composer meant for you to experience.  More on that in a bit…

That’s not to say that you can never use spikes. In fact, they are on a prototype pair of speakers that I’ve been evaluating for a manufacturer.  Although, if they were mine to keep, I’d replace the spikes, or get a good spike/floor interface.

Sliding base for spiked speakers

Whether you prefer spiked speakers or not, we can all agree that spiked loudspeakers are a major pain to get placed in just the right spot, whether on carpet, wood, or other surfaces.

I generally recommend the accessories from Herbie’s Audio Lab. Nearly everyone who tries these items from Herbie’s Audio Lab has reported far more musical results – less mechanical & more organic sounding.  They are called Cone/Spike Decoupling Gliders.

Although I initially tried the Giant Decoupling Gliders, I often ended up using the standard ones on most system/room voicing jobs. About the only time you’d need the giant ones would be if your speaker is maybe 125 lbs. or more, or perhaps if your carpet is deeper than most. To see the decoupling gliders, scroll down to about half of this page.

I also like the brass inserts, but this is personal taste. So basically, the least expensive version (US $16.89 each) has consistently worked out best for me.

In certain cases, the Threaded Stud Glider is a great solution as well. I use them with speakers or audio furniture pieces that were threaded for a spike/cone assembly.

The icing on the cake is that – at least with the Herbie’s gliders – you can make the most minute speaker adjustments – while still using your spikes – without cursing and questioning why you ever got into this weird but wonderful pastime of ours!

But just to be extra clear, practically everyone always prefers the sound with their spiked speakers left sitting on Herbie’s gliders – not to mention the enhanced ease of movement.  No going back to “spiked into the floor” for them.

The Point

OK, I know there are lots of well-respected (and famous) designers out there who still recommend spikes into the floor for their loudspeakers. I’ve written and commented on this position before, but it seems as if I need to touch on it in a little more depth.

Actually, this topic comes up on a number of RoomPlay voicing sessions as well. Quite simply, using spikes as the interface between the floor and the speaker consistently produces what I call Audiophile Bass. There is no question that the bass is tighter. It even affects the overall sound in the higher registers.

I tend to prefer more of what I call a musically organic sound, whereas the spikes produce a more mechanically precise sound. So there is room for calling one or the other a simple preference. Until you think about the actual sound of live bass, acoustic or amplified.  I always say, “It’s not a preference when you have a reference.” 🙂

Over many years of concert-going, and making live recordings for various entities, including Public Radio Affiliates, not once have I EVER heard live bass (acoustic or amplified) that sounds as tight and shriveled as I hear from systems where spikes are used. Not once – never…

Yet, I can go into an audio show where – time-after-time – the speaker designer is on hand, proudly demoing his latest creation, which, more often than not, is sitting on spikes into the floor. Rather than being critical, let’s just chalk it up to a matter of opinion and experience.

Or, sometimes we are told that we need to couple our speakers to the floor with spikes. I’m not sure if that is the right term. Guess I’ve probably come down on the side of those whose viewpoint is that we need to decouple the system from the floor. Or at least do it in a more valid and musically engaging manner, whatever the descriptive term.

I can attest to the fact that I’ve voiced dozens of systems lately where the client was using spikes under their speakers when I arrived, because that was what came with their speakers, or they had invested in the purchase, often due to ACK (Audiophile Common Knowledge). I do not suggest removing them. I do suggest refining the interface between the spike and the floor (Doesn’t matter if the floor is hardwood, tile, carpeted, etc.).

Acoustic Wave-launch & Sliders

Over the l-o-o-n-g time that I have spent voicing audio systems to listening rooms, I have come to believe that nothing is more important than a successful acoustic wave-launch into the room, and – of at least equal importance – how the listener receives it.

More often than not, the system owner or significant other may have some issues with the room layout from a décor standpoint. This often means that the loudspeakers cannot be moved forward enough to present the sort of musically involving Dynamics, Presence, & Tone that is simply waiting to be unlocked from recordings.

Restricting a high performance speaker to – or near to – the plane of the wall behind it is a sure recipe for a lack of musical involvement. Even more so when there is an equipment (or really, any kind of) cabinet between your speakers.

Back when I was making recordings, there was no way that I would allow a performer to be that close to the wall or nearby furniture! The resulting sound would be hopelessly colored, and notably lacking Presence & Tone. So why do we allow our loudspeakers to be boxed in, restricting much of the musical involvement that they could freely supply, if only a little care was applied to their set-up?

Often it’s a matter of décor requirements. Hey, after 47 years of marriage, I kinda know how that can happen… 🙂

Whenever I voice a system in a room where these requirements need to be followed, there has always been a way – when listening seriously – to hear the sound for which you have paid.  Although there is going to be a lot of frustration – and maybe tension – if you do not put the speakers back when you are done! Who needs tension when we are listening to our music?

Part of the problem is that audiophiles insist on their favorite feet, spikes or isolation devices for their loudspeakers, rendering them difficult to move at best… May I suggest another solution that will yield FAR more engaging sound?

Place your loudspeakers on furniture sliders! They come in all sorts of sizes & shapes. Re these optional solutions to loudspeaker spikes inserted directly into the floor, once they heard the difference, in every case, the client did not want to give up the solution I brought along to aid with the movement of the speakers. If you’ve ever tried to move heavy speakers on spikes, you know what I mean!

Here’s the thing – leaving your loudspeakers on the “best” footers, spikes, etc. – but in a very compromised position – is nowhere close to the listening experience you can have with your speakers slid into the best – or at least a better – position for your listening session!

Once you’ve experienced the difference available from a dramatically improved acoustic wave-launch, there is no way that you would ever want to go back to serious listening with your loudspeakers in a compromised position. For example – on a recent RoomPlay session, the client’s loudspeakers weighed over 500 lbs. apiece! Once he experienced them producing a hugely involving illusion of live music from a proper acoustic wave-launch, he was hooked. Yet, he could move his speakers back into the appropriately décor-minded place by himself!

I should mention that I prefer the Herbie’s decoupling gliders to furniture sliders, but if you already own some exotic footers that you want to use, it can be done with furniture sliders.  If you have them, even spikes can be used when an appropriate interface is introduced between the spike & floor.

And again, if you are listening in a room where the décor minded person will object to having the speakers placed further into the room, always be sure to put them back when your serious listening session ends.  Unwanted tension in the home is not a recipe for musical engagement!

In summary, worrying about high-end footers (no matter how expensive or how outrageous the claims) – cannot begin to compare to the acoustic wave launch actually doing what it is supposed to do.  Especially if you want to hear what you paid for…

Once the speakers are in this dramatically improved position, if you want to use your exotic footers, go for it! Only now you will gain a far greater result, assuming the footers are really up to the task.

One more thought re: improved acoustic wave-launch

The objection that “My short (and usually expensive) speaker cables won’t reach now!” is always rendered powerless – even if we temporarily use 16 gauge speaker wire from the local hardware store – when compared to the huge improvement from a (relatively) unsullied acoustic wave-launch.  Of course, the clients are usually confounded & astounded that cheapo 16 ga. wire is beating their favorite cable.  But it’s not the wire that makes the huge difference, it’s the dramatically improved acoustic wave-launch!

If you still want to use the cables you love, the improvement in sound & musical engagement from a correct acoustic wave-launch will make the added expense of longer cables even more worthwhile.

Ok, one more (brief) thing…

Bringing the speakers further into the room, serves to reduce the effect of the room as well.  Why?

Now the sound reaches you quicker, reducing the effect of room reflections.  There’s more I could say on this topic, but that’s not the point here…

This piece was adapted from Get Better Sound‘s Quarter Notes newsletters. You can read more of Jim Smith’s writings here.

Syd Barrett: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

WL Woodward

Yer not! Am too! But we just stopped. Yeah, that was good for you then wernit? But I didn’t have ter go then. Plus that tab is kickin in. So what? It don’t make ya pee fer chrissakes! It doan stop ya from peein either Syd! Alright alright ya Knob, here’s a stop.

As the van turned, headlights showed a petrol stop with an attached store selling regular crap and sugar filled crap. The address over the door, 60 Glisson Road.   Knob hobbled to the pisser and Syd became less and less aware of who was what. Yup, the tab was definitely kicking in.

This night was more than a little weird. Syd realized he could only retrace a few hours and nothing doing before that. In fact, the more he thought about it, the less he could put together. This made him start to giggle. Which he stopped quickly. Can’t crack up here. Look at that sod in the store staring out at him. He looked like Wilford Brimley starting a stroke. A snort escaped and Syd thought he’d better get some gas before he couldn’t remember how.

Knob was in the men’s room trying to remember what he was doing there. You’d think just looking around would remind him, but this was not going to be a night for simplicity. There was no real light, meaning thank God for the skylight with a road light shining through. Then Knob heard a sound. A slight sound. A shuffle. There was someone, a fog of a someone, standing by the wash basin. As Knob turned from the toilet to look closer the fog leapt out through the window grate. Knob gave out a croak and attempted buttoning up his manhood without taking his eyes off the light outside. Which was brightening.

In the shop the attendant watched as the shadow came through the window again. This is not how this night is going to end, he thought. Not again. No more. Slowly, he stooped slightly to pick up the ax he’d started keeping behind the stand. Careful and slow. If it sees the ax there will be hell to pay off. He froze at the sound of a voice behind. Careful with that ax, Eugene. He turned slowly to see his wife standing in the doorway to the stockroom, her arms folded across her chest. With the light behind her Eugene realized she looked just like her mother. Shit.

She stepped further into the room. If you miss the shadow again and kill that boy we’ll never be rid of it. Eugene nodded and headed out the door. Slow now. Raise the ax.

Syd had become transfixed with the reflection of the rolling lights of the petrol machine in the van’s side window. He was just that close to figuring out the significance of backwards numbers in the van window. The numbers appeared to be backwards, but were moving forward. I know what that means, he thought. It’s like relativity. A change in the perception of a number in two directions has biblical relevance, it has to. It’s a metaphor for the weird ebb and flow of the pace in our world. Then the numbers were slowly replaced in the window with a shadow and he knew he was about to die.

Knob stumbled through the knee deep dust of the station, his legs made of rubber, moving so slow he couldn’t breathe. He saw the attendant behind Syd. The ax raised. An hour seemed to pass and then Knob let out a shriek bubbled in plastic wrap.

Eugene brought the ax down towards the shadow hovering over the boy. The shadow fled and Eugene’s heart stopped as he saw the ax descend on the kid’s shoulder, taking the arm completely off as clean as a string through cheese. Syd screamed and fell next to his arm between the van and the curb. Eugene felt something shriek inside that escaped. His wife was screaming, now all four, Eugene, his wife, Syd and Knob, were screeching, with a mad sound of laughter underneath. The shrieks caught the wind and fled into the night.

Roger bolted upright in his bed. The room was dark and the screams from his dream were melting into the corners of his flat. His face and chest were beaded with sweat and his eyes rolled as if searching for images. He swung his legs off the bed, and reached for the cigarettes on the night stand. What in the holy bloody hell was THAT?!

For one album as the true leader of Pink Floyd and throughout subsequent albums as the band’s curious muse and shadow, Syd Barrett remained spiritually a member of the band.  Born to a middle class existence in the university town of Cambridge Syd was drawn to art in many forms, and the arts of delight were drawn to him.  He first met Roger Waters as a schoolmate at 9 when Waters’ mother was his schoolteacher.  Starting at 11 he attended Cambridgeshire High School for Boys.

During this period Barrett started playing ukelele , then banjo, and got his first acoustic guitar at 14.  The following year he bought an electric and built an amplifier.  He took a place at Cambridge Technical College in the art department in September 1962 where he met David Gilmour.  Syd and Gilmour played in gigs around the campus, the usual folk stuff inspired by the Dylans and Guthries of the time and eventually by 1963 the Beatles.

Here Syd would start writing songs, and not in any real pop tradition.  A friend recalls hearing ‘Effervescing Elephant’ during this time, a far cry from ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’.  By 1964 the early parts of the Floyd were gigging under names like The Abdabs, the Screaming Abdabs, and The Meggadeaths.  Syd enrolled full time in art school.  He was 18.

But he was 18, studying art with the fervor of the true acolyte dedicated to the idea, the symbolism and spiritualism of art for its own sake.  Syd must have been skipping a great deal of school because by the autumn of 1965 the band settled into its famous four piece set of Nick Mason on drums, Roger Waters on bass, Richard Wright on keys, and Barrett doing guitar and vocals as well as writing everything the band played.  Richard Wright in an interview with author Barry Miles:

“It was great when Syd joined.  Before him, we’d play the R&B classiscs, because that’s what all groups were supposed to be doing then…With Syd, the direction changed; it became more improvised around the guitar and keyboards..”

The band was becoming more and more important to Syd, as a special canvas to a painter.  By 1966 the Floyd had become the darling of the psychedelic set and virtually the house band for the new London Underground.  The band quickly developed a reputation for songs with freakish improvisation that seemed rooted in formless phantasm followed swiftly and precisely into heart stopping movements.

Then in late 1966 the break came.  EMI signed them to a contract including unlimited time in a studio EMI owned named Abbey Road.  Now here comes the weird part.

During the same period the Floyd were recording their debut album, the Beatles were working up their eighth, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  In the same studio.  Pepper’s was released in June 1967 and the Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in August.   Flippin 1967 AGAIN.  “Piper’ is not well known except to true Pink fans but Pepper is hailed as the breakthrough album of the psychedelic era.  Pepper was certainly a monumental moment in pop history but Piper was unquestionably more of a true example of what was happening in progressive rock.  Here is a clip from Piper.  Keep in mind, this is the First song from Floyd’s First album.  If you don’t hear the shades of Floydism and the obvious influence Barrett’s work would always have on the band to come you aren’t listening or you hate the band and couldn’t care less.  Right, Johnny Rotten?

Immediately after the release Syd Barrett started losing his cheese.  There was certainly a great deal of drug use at fault, particularly LSD.  Rumor has it friends would slip tabs into his tea without his knowing, but it remains to be seen whether Syd would have protested very harshly.  But stories from late 1967 definitely speak to a certain schizophrenia, or at least some mental illness that could not have been helped by frequent ingestion of hallucinogenics.

It’s ironic to note that one of Syd’s earliest musical buddies was David Gilmour.  After Barrett started slipping brain cells to the devil and getting none back Gilmour would be asked to fill in, first as backup guitar, then full time as Syd slipped into space.  By December 1967 Syd would disappear for days, miss gigs, or when he was at the gigs he’d take to wandering around on stage without an instrument, or playing one chord over and over, or sitting in a semi catatonic state mid stage, in a band that prided themselves with creative discipline.  Barrett’s stage antics were adored by the audience as examples of avant garde, but the band was increasingly unnerved.  David Gilmour would say later “Syd’s story is romanticized by people who don’t know it”.  Finally on the way to a gig in early 1968 someone in the band asked the question “Should we pick up Syd?”  They didn’t.  And that was it.

Of course the subsequent story of Pink Floyd chronicled one the most successful runs in rock history and one of the ugliest.  Barrett’s legacy left a stamp on the Floyd’s music throughout its twists, turns, highs, and shit storms.  I love the fact that the band always took care of Syd during his life and his family after Barrett passed in 2007, making sure they received all royalties from “The Piper”, even keeping Barrett in later restructured deals.  Waters is a miserable crap shoot as a bandmate, but to his credit he always gave Barrett his due and immortalized him in songs like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Wish You Were Here”.  But he also said Gilmour had no ideas, so his opinion on musical matters is suspect.  What a maroon.

It’s ironic as it is delicious.  Syd Barrett WAS the piper at the gates of dawn.

Sunflower Bean

Anne E. Johnson

Fat Possum Records, the small label that the band Sunflower Bean records for, refers to the threesome as “veterans of the Brooklyn DIY scene.” DIY. That’s Brooklynese for indie. Cute. (Full disclosure: I’ve lived in Brooklyn for over a decade, but not the cool neighborhoods that get to coin record industry terms.)

Whatever you call them, Sunflower Bean has some real and varied rock chops, a thing heartening to hear in this age when any kind of musical chops – let alone a sense of popular music history — seem increasingly rare. The lead singer, Julia Cumming, is also the bass player. Nick Kivlen sings back-up and plays guitar (and let’s get it out of the way: yes, he’s a dead ringer for Bob Dylan circa 1965). Jacob Faber is the drummer. They got started in 2013, when they were all in their late teens. Their youth hasn’t kept them from being serious musicians, a statement that’s true for many of the greats. These three have potential for sure.

And if my word doesn’t pass for street cred, the fact that they’re opening for The Pixies on tour this summer should do it.

As with many indie musicians, Sunflower Bean’s sound morphs from one sub-genre to another in an original blend. That’s not something to be ashamed of, according to a quote from Cumming on their Bandcamp page: “You’re allowed to obsess over Black Sabbath as well as The Cure.”

Heavy metal and punk do make frequent appearances in Sunflower Bean’s music, but so do British Invasion rock and roll as well as dreampop (alternative neo-psychedelia from the late ʼ80s, with the best-known practitioners being My Bloody Valentine).

That dreamy, off-kilter feel was present even in Sunflower Bean’s earliest work, as was the variety of styles. “Bread” is one of the band’s 2013 tracks marked on Bandcamp as “recorded in Christian Billard’s home studio,” which sure sounds indie to me. Simple, arpeggio-based melodies start the song, over synth and ethereal high-hat cymbals; vocal phrases swirl around each other. But without warning, the rhythm is shored up into a march-like, drum-driven duple around the 1:40 mark:


“Bread” was rereleased in 2014 as part of the EP Show Me Your Seven Secrets. Another older track on that collection was “2013” (which was released yet again on 2016’s Human Ceremony, the band’s most recent album). The opening riff is reminiscent of the original psychedelia movement: cue the colored oil slide projections and the bellbottoms. Unfortunately, the lyrics are punk-approved indecipherable.


And yet another facet of the band shows them sweet and melodic. The opening blast of “Shine a Light,” from the 2016 EP From the Basement, could be Queen circa 1978. But it’s just a musical representation of the light, apparently, since the song is unusually gentle, a sweet triple-time tune featuring Kivlen on both vocals (Cumming does backup a third above) and shimmery guitar patterns that sound almost like steel guitar until he increases the distortion. So, these guys don’t shy away from a touch of country! Their cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” has a similar vibe, this time sung primarily by Cumming.

There couldn’t be greater contrast between those tracks and “Tame Impala,” another song on From the Basement. One of their hardest head-banging tunes, it shows off Cumming’ bass playing with a relentless riff. And between her screeching voice and Kivlen’s robotic delivery of the words, you’ve got two of the classic punk approaches to singing, accompanied by enough crazy energy in the instruments to make Black Flag proud:


Sunflower Bean’s latest album (and their first full-length commercial venture) is Human Ceremony (2016). It’s a get-to-know-us endeavor that showcases all their skills, not to mention their distinctive worldview. Here’s “Creation Myth”:


Cumming demonstrates her vocal range with that mountainside of a melody. It took me the first five times to understand the one line of the chorus, “All in six days, Paradise on Earth”; diction is never Cumming’ strength, but that’s long been a badge of honor among songwriters trying to be mysterious or deep. Still, the construction of the song is intelligent, even if it seems haphazard at first listening. When Kivlen doubles Cumming’s vocals at the lower octave, it grounds the melody, forming the perfect earthward path to a ripping, raging heavy-metal guitar solo, like the continental plates cracking apart.

If “Creation Myth” has more than a touch of Radiohead’s perpetual motion drive, “Easier Said” shows influence from Blondie and the Cranberries, and not only because of how the platinum-haired Cumming is featured in the video. (It’s worth noting that Cumming has called this one her favorite song on the album.) Her singing has that slight detachment, as if she either does not understand the English she’s singing, doesn’t want you to know what she’s thinking, or is new to our planet. It’s an accepted means of singing for female leads, ever since the great Deborah Harry slid her way over a “Heart of Glass.”

Speaking of visiting other planets, Human Ceremony ends with “Space Exploration Disaster.” It’s a cross between the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Miles from Home” and the old Conan O’Brien shtick “In the year 2000.” With impressive layered textures from Kivlen’s guitar, it’s a showpiece for the rhythm section.


There’s also some subtle wit in the concept of this song. Just as O’Brien’s feature continued after the new millennium had begun, making it no longer a prediction of the future but a parody, the verses of “Space Exploration Disaster” hang on the line “In the year 2015…,” soothsaying about the very year the song was written as if it were a generation in the future.

Which makes me wonder, how firmly are those Sunflowers’ tongues planted in their cheeks, not just in this song, but in all of them?

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be

Bill Leebens

I’ve previously mentioned audio icon Henry Kloss’ time at AR (Vintage Whine, way back in Copper #5). The time will come for me to do a comprehensive review of Kloss’ post-AR serial enterprises, KLH, Advent, Kloss Video, Cambridge SoundWorks, and Tivoli—but this is not that piece. Right now, I’d like to focus on Kloss’ genius at packaging audio gear to fit almost any environment—and how the present vinyl revival is inspiring a new generation to take a crack at packaging phonographs as Kloss once did. The problem is—they’re doing a terrible job of it.

Kloss often used cutting-edge technology in his products, being an early adopter of transistor amplifiers, Dolby B, chrome dioxide cassettes, and three-gun projection TV, but such innovations were rarely showy or done with much fanfare (the exception being the large KLH 9 electrostats). They were simply done to provide better sound in well-packaged, reasonably-priced products.

For decades, almost every American home had a small countertop radio in the kitchen. Such radios were generally AM only, and often possessed dubious sound quality. Kloss’ first “hi-fi for all seasons” product was the KLH Model Eight  (always spelled out as “Eight”, for some reason),  a compact tube-type FM-only radio/amp with a separate speaker of matching size, made from 1960-65. Barely a hand-span in width, the Eight was notable for its fine sound quality; its clean styling still influences product design, and many Eights are still in use today. The Eight showed that there was a market for good-sounding products that could be used almost anywhere—and Kloss later returned to that market again and again, with Cambridge SoundWorks and Tivoli.

As important as the Eight was, the products I’d like to focus upon today are the KLH Models 11,15, 20, and 20 Plus. These products encompassed two classes of audio products upon which many budding audiophiles cut their teeth, and with which many regular folks found musical enjoyment: compact systems and portable systems. The 11—apparently numerals were okay—was a cleverly packaged portable system in a suitcase, literally. The rather cheesy Garrard record changer and electronics comprised the bottom half of the suitcase, the top being a clip-on lid for travel. The separate small speakers clipped on opposite ends of the buttoned-up turntable, forming a faux-leather suitcase such as Samsonite used to make.

The 11 was notable for several reasons: its compact size and fully-enclosed design were possible because its electronics were all-transistor, supposedly one of the first units to be all solid state.Note that while the speakers can pack in with the turntable, they are separate—allowing proper enclosure design and avoiding the acoustic feedback that would likely result from having all in a common enclosure (a lesson today’s hipster designs seem to have missed).


More ambitious than portable systems were compact systems. Most—like the KLH Models 15 and 20—had turntable and electronics in one enclosure, with two separate speakers . Some inexpensive units seemed to teeter between the portable and compact classifications, with the turntable and one speaker in a common enclosure, with the second speaker clipping onto the front for transport. Not so good.

Both portables and compacts were popular with college students for obvious reasons. Compacts had a little more domestic sensibility, with wood-veneered cabinets. The KLH 15 was still phono-only; the 20 was more ambitious, and featured a vernier-tuning FM tuner in addition to the turntable, along with bigger/better speakers. It’s important to note that these were not cheap systems: the 11’s $200 price tag in 1965 equals over $1500 today, and the 20’s $400 price is over $3000 in 2017 bucks.

The 20 Plus (seen atop the page) was the 20 decked out in mid-century modern glory: the phono/amp unit received a wooden flip-top lid and all three pieces mounted on spun-aluminum pedestals, creating a  not-quite-console.

So: why am I dwelling upon products that most of us would sniffily regard as lo-fi, or mid-fi at best? Because they were well-designed, functional, solidly-built products that gave pleasure to an entire generation. Kloss had a singular genius for maximizing the performance of everything he touched, and even his least-expensive products were good-sounding, competently designed and easy to use. They were not built (or priced) to be throw-aways; the sheer number of old Models Eight and 20 still in use is impressive.

Contrast the 11, 15, and 20 with almost any product from Johnny-come-lately turntable builders inspired by nostalgia and the LP revival. Look at, say, Crosley. Whether you choose the cheesy faux-retro models or the just plain cheesy plasticky models, these are reportedly dangerous record-chewers. The company introduced a few higher-priced turntables that are fairly credible, built by ProJect. But if you wanted a ProJect-built table, would you want it with the Crosley name attached?

Crowdfunding sites often feature badly-designed audio products—yes, there are some good crowdfunded products, I’ve worked with a number of them. But in general, turntables offered for crowdfunding seem ill-conceived, ill-designed, and unlikely to ever reach production.Remember the Floating Record on Kickstarter? It raised over $1.5M with an uphill-working tonearm. There have been vertical turntables in the past, but they all seemed a little more aware of the laws of physics. How about the Atmo Sfera platterless table? Over 60,000 Euro raised.

Remember that little VW bus that would run around your record and play it—supposedly? Well, the present generation seems unaware: a modern take on it raised over $350,000 on Kickstarter. A more suave but no less ridiculous cousin, the Love turntable, raised over $860,000 on Kickstarter. And there are plenty of all-in-one units out there that have turntable and speakers in the same enclosure, like this thing. I can’t imagine all the issues that would have.

It’s a little ironic that these clunky devices were all prompted by the nostalgia over records. All they do is make me nostalgic for well-designed, solidly-built, no-BS audio products.

Is that whirring sound Henry Kloss spinning in his grave?


The Great Wall

Dan Schwartz

In the early 70s, the Grateful Dead were the most interesting organization in rock music.

To the world outside of San Francisco, they may have seemed a “Warner Brothers act” –– they were signed to the label from 1967 – 1973 — but they rarely acted like it.  The band had put out a number of albums on the label, including some that were very commercial, but in plain sight of anyone interested, anything but hidden away, they grew from a group of five guys in 1965 to a pretty massive assemblage of companies and people — about 75 people in all.

There was Out of Town Tours, a travel agency called Fly By Night, the Dead’s publishing company Ice Nine[1], as well as Alembic, the most advanced instrument builder of the day, which had its beginnings under the Dead’s wings in this same period. In the last WB period, they had learned to become totally self-reliant. Every aspect of their existence was independent except their records, and by 73, they issued their last WB album and they launched Grateful Dead Records and Round Records. Freedom at last — for a few years.

Their utter uniqueness was commemorated in an issue of Rolling Stone dated November 22, 1973, in a cover story called “A New Life for the Dead: Grateful Dead Handle Their Business”, and a cover that proclaimed, above an airbrushed picture of an ebullient Jerry Garcia,  “Welcome to the Wide Open World of the Corporate Dead”. I want to encourage anyone reading this piece to read the RS piece, too. It’s a wonderful document of the band and company at a phenomenal time in their adventure.

An excerpt to suggest the spirit that pervaded the band:

One other side trip needs to be mentioned: the Neal Cassady Memorial Foundation. Ron Rakow had mentioned it as “one of the measures we’re taking to ensure that the Dead are never financially secure.” Jerry Garcia gives the details:

 “When I recorded Garcia, I found for a while I was rich, so I started giving the money away. And I found after a while that it cost me $1500 to give away $1000. So we’re getting an institution registered to promote research in the arts, sciences and education so I can give away my money easier. So far it hasn’t done anything.

 “Well, yeah, it ought to keep us insecure.”

So, you understand — the Grateful Dead did not think like any other band.  Success to them meant things it didn’t mean to most other people. And so, the great Wall of Sound: it was mostly the inspiration of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, otherwise just called Owsley or Bear. He called everyone to a meeting in 1969 at what was then the band’s rehearsal room in Novato, California, to brainstorm about, basically, his dissatisfaction with the band’s sound. It was a topic Bear knew well — he had appointed himself the Dead’s chief soundman after witnessing them at an Acid Test in 1965, close to their beginnings[2]. And he was after something more. Rick Turner remembers him saying, “You know, the solution is the PA system has to be behind the band.[3]

And so began a process of figuring out how to do that. It was an ingenious, almost completely insane solution, took a few years, and almost broke the band, financially and otherwise. Their near-breakup and yearlong hiatus when the Wall was retired probably had as much to do with hauling it around as anything else. But it worked — really worked! I heard it in 1974, and have never heard anything like it. The combined efforts of Bear, the illustrious John Curl, Ron Wickersham and Rick Turner of Alembic, as well as a few others, paid off in spades.

Imagine an amplifier set-up for each instrument, blown up to arena-filling proportions. Or rather, imagine six of them: one for each instrument (including drums), plus vocals. And then arrange them all in vertical line arrays. And then have the vocalists sing into phase-cancelling microphones.

Let me talk about the bass first, since I know and care more about that subject. The bass, besides bass and treble (or neck and bridge) pickups, had a quad pickup. Each string could go to its own amplifier — or not — selected by push-button switches on the instrument’s face. From there the signal went to four separate preamps, four McIntosh 2300 600-watt amps, and then on to four groups of 9 JBL D140 15” speakers in separate cabinets, arranged, in its final configuration (and as I heard it), as two columns of 18 — slightly over 30 feet, or one full low E wavelength. In practice the bass was rarely used quad, except during a bass solo. And then, it was unbelievable. I was pretty far back in the Philadelphia Civic Center when Phil Lesh soloed, but the clarity, especially of chords, was truly something to remember.


The guitar set-ups were simpler, consisting of smaller amps driving columns of 12s, but the drum, piano and vocal systems were more complex multi-way systems: all in all, almost 600 individual speakers, 50 E-V tweeters, and 50 Mac tube (3500) and solid-state (2300) amps[4]. It was BIG.

But it didn’t sound big. It sounded like a group of people playing their instruments, pretty intimately, in whatever space they were playing in.  And it did what it was expected to do — at least almost. By putting almost all the speakers behind the band, and by controlling vertical spill, the overall color of the band was preserved. The one drawback was the vocal mics, which could sometimes, not always, sound thin owing to their genius arrangement, as a pair per singer of mics run into a differential circuit that would reject anything that went into each mic identically — oh, say, like the massive wall of speakers behind them, while the vocalist sang into one.

And, importantly, it was the first of its kind in many ways. A lot of what’s known and put into practice nowadays was discovered in the band’s Wall period, and in small systems like the Bose portable L1 line array system, which does an admirable job of doing, in miniature, what the Grateful Dead, en masse, learned from the Wall of Sound.

[1] Named for the water with a higher melting point from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cats Cradle”

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_4IBpkTgsY

[3] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/wnnayb/the-wall-of-sound

[4] Rick Turner adds: “You might just mention that the 2300s were used for everything except the EV tweeters where the tube 3500s sounded better, and that the PA portion was a four way system with the height of each frequency band array designed to give optimal dispersion for the wave lengths projected.  The ultimate goal was equal dispersion at all frequencies…with reality kicking in a bit.“


Richard Murison

As 1936 dawned in Soviet Russia, Joseph Stalin had already been in power for over ten years, and the first great purge was already well under way.  It was a dangerous time to be a Soviet citizen, and it seemed that internal security policy was modeled on the game of whack-a-mole, where anybody whose head popped up – for any reason – was in danger of being summarily crushed.  For the 29-year old composer Dmitri Shostakovich, already emerging as a precocious talent in a cultural milieu considered by Stalin to be important to the Russian people, it was both a privileged and a dangerous time.

His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had opened to official approval in 1934 and had gone on to be performed many times – around the world as well as across Russia – and had generally enjoyed both critical and popular approval.  So it was with some dismay that Shostakovich learned one cold January morning that Pravda has just published an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” which was openly critical of it.  And, worse, that very evening Stalin and the politburo were going to attend a performance at the Bolshoi theatre.  Shostakovich was advised to be sure he was there.  To the composer’s horror, Stalin was seen to cringe at several moments, and laughed loudly at the central seduction scene that had, up to that point, been the only aspect of the opera to receive any consistent critical approbation.

Shostakovich has said that from that night on he slept with a packed suitcase under his bed, fully expecting to be woken by the NKVD and marched off to prison for subsequent execution.  But even so, he continued to work on his music, and in particular on the completion of his 4th Symphony which at that point only required some final refinements.  Shostakovich, a true Russian, was nothing if not stubborn, and he refused any and all entreaties to revise the work to address mounting criticisms of Lady Macbeth for being “too formalist”.  By December, he was busy with final rehearsals when, in circumstances that remain murky to this day, he suddenly withdrew it.  It is said that the symphony had been banned, but there is no evidence to support this.  The most likely explanation is that the orchestra itself, and its managers, got so nervous about being associated with such a controversial subject that the embattled composer felt he had little choice, and voluntarily withdrew it.

Some months later, Shostakovich began work on his 5th Symphony, which was granted a premiere in November 1937.  The fact that he called the new work his 5th Symphony, allowing the abandoned and “formalist” 4th Symphony to live on in implied memory, was in retrospect the first portent of the true nature of what was to become arguably his most famous – and certainly his most popular – symphony.  In a newspaper article published a few days prior to the opening, Shostakovich characterized the new work as “A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism”.  Indeed, the new symphony proved to be a suitably more conservative work, and in due course the communist party and its leadership bestowed its blessings to rehabilitate the reputation of its errant genius of a composer.

[Shostakovich went on to suffer a second, and potentially more dangerous denunciation in 1948, when the circumstances on this occasion had more sinister political overtones.  Again, he took to sleeping on the landing so that his family would not be disturbed when the secret police came for him, but again he was spared from the worst – at least in part by his esteemed reputation outside the Soviet Union – and gradually regained his former prestige after Stalin died in 1953 and his successor, Krushchev, denounced Stalin himself.]

Although the manuscript score for the 4th Symphony was lost during WWII, the orchestra in Leningrad had retained the individual instrumental parts from the 1936 rehearsals, and so the symphony was able to be reconstructed and eventually performed in 1961 in the climate of the composer’s full post-Stalin rehabilitation.  Interestingly, for the belated premiere, the stubborn Shostakovich would brook not a single amendment to his original 1936 score.  We’ll come back to it in a moment and consider it in more detail, but first we’ll take a quick look at the more famous 5th Symphony.

What we now know is that the 5th Symphony, far from representing a loyal and chastened return to the Soviet fold, is in fact a vicious, barely-veiled, and deeply-cutting parody on Soviet Russia.  This is something that appears so immediately obvious to modern ears that it is hard to imagine the contemporary Russian audience failing to see immediately through it.  In fact, modern scholarship suggests that one of the reasons it was so massively popular was that yes, indeed, contemporary audiences did read it correctly and enjoyed the vicarious thrill of being complicit with Shostakovich’s savage poke in the eye of the beast, while none of those in power were willing to risk Whack-a-Mole by being the first to point this out.  In any event, the Soviet establishment was willing to take the “Soviet artist’s response to just criticism” at face value and openly promote it as an example of how happy they were to welcome back transgressors who took the necessary corrective steps.  Shostakovich had, in effect, found and perfected a style through which he could express his loathing of the Stalinist system from within, and without any apparent fear of being denounced.  He would use it to great effect for the remainder of his career.

Where the 5th Symphony is classically structured, the 4th is a wild and barely-controlled ride through the chaos of Stalin’s purges.  It calls for an absolutely colossal 125-piece orchestra, the largest in the standard repertoire.  Structurally, it proceeds more like a ballet score than a symphony, progressing through what are effectively a series of tableaux.  Its two outer movements, both a good half hour in duration, seem to be possessed of very little in the way of a guiding narrative.  While the self-contained shorter central movement proceeds in a less arbitrary manner, it still prompts you to wonder what its connection is with the rest of the symphony.  Overall, you can hardly expect to walk out of a performance of the 4th Symphony whistling its tunes, although the opening march is quite memorable.  It is perhaps – paradoxically – this very absence of apparent form which led to its condemnation as “too formalist”, whatever that term is supposed to mean.  The point is, it’s not just Soviet doctrinaire theoreticians who can find the work tough to get to grips with.

That the 5th Symphony is classically structured is a key point here.  In writing his 5th Symphony as a direct response to the potentially lethal criticisms levied at his 4th, Shostakovich created a fundamentally better-balanced work.  It represented a massive advancement in technical maturity, at least from the conventional viewpoint of symphonic theorists in the years leading up to the 1930’s.  While various avant-garde approaches were beginning to emerge in other less-restrictive compositional forms, they were still by and large being resisted in the more rigorous discipline of symphonic composition.  But they clearly resonated with the young Shostakovich’s progressive impulses.

So in responding to politically motivated existential criticism, Shostakovich was forced to temper his natural inclination to break the bounds of convention by mastering the disciplines of conventional musical structure, and in the process learned a powerful musical lesson.  You can hear its application to all of his major works for the remainder of his lifetime.  And they are, arguably, the better for it.  Although Shostakovich himself seems to have accepted that, he once said, late in life, that without “Party Guidance” he might have written more “pure” music.  We can only wonder what that might have meant.  As it was, under the oppressive influence of “Party Guidance”, driven by his own remarkable genius, and with the use of parody, satire, and allegory, he became arguably the greatest symphonist – Russian or otherwise – of the entire 20th Century.  But the 4th Symphony, meanwhile, remains a standout within his oeuvre for its ferocious indiscipline.

From reading the above you might be reasonably confident in assuming that I am not a fan of the work, or that it is some sort of unlistenable cacophony.  But nothing could be farther from the truth – it is by far and away my favorite Shostakovich symphony.  Unfortunately, I have never yet heard a performance of it that I think comes even close to nailing it good and proper [like, for example, Bernstein’s primordial 1959 Rite of Spring, Kleiber’s lights-out rendition of Beethoven’s 5th, or Cooke’s unleashing of Carmina Burana].  Even Kondrashin’s seminal 1963 recording, held by many to be the pinnacle (Shostakovich himself having been present at a performance in London by the same performers), doesn’t quite do it for me.  I attended a concert by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain, which might have been just what the doctor ordered, but unfortunately it was a transient event and has not been released for deeper consideration other than as a crappy MP3 which sounds like it was captured on an iPhone.

I do have one lingering issue with the work, though, and I have already alluded to this.  Following the shattering onslaught of the first movement, the second movement has nowhere to go, and even the great Nézet-Séguin found himself short of somewhere complementary to take it.  The first and third movements are all but devoid of form, and where the first movement relies on heavy doses of bombast and aggression, the third is more introspective and contemplative [it brings to mind the Ruhevoll of Mahler’s 4th with its glorious and triumphant fanfare that tries to corral the forces towards the expected upbeat conclusion, but fails – instead giving way to an ambiguous pianissimo closing coda.  This is a symphony that was known to have influenced the young Shostakovich].  There is no immediately obvious role that the second movement can be seen to be playing as an intermediary between the two.  It doesn’t function as a scherzo as such, nor does it set the table for the finale in the manner of Beethoven.

In fact, I toy with the notion of cutting the second movement entirely.  I am intrigued by the thought that the symphony might work much better as a two movement piece.  Such ideas, though, do not find favor in classical music circles, given that even the august Klemperer’s suggestion of cutting the number of flutes from six to four was considered controversial and summarily dismissed by Shostakovich himself.  Not that the second movement is in and of itself deficient or flawed.  Auditioned in isolation it is rather beautiful.  In fact I plan to experiment with inserting it between the first and second movements of the 7th Symphony.  In my mind’s eye (mind’s ear?) at least, it has a chance.  It’s the sort of thing Mahler might have done – or at least considered doing.  And it is intriguing to note that Shostakovich composed his first sketches for the opening movement of the 7th at about the same time he was writing the 4th.  But that’s for another day.

For anybody interested enough to give this majestic symphony a listen, here is an official YouTube video of Vasily Petrenko and the European Youth Orchestra from 2014 (Petrenko is another emerging young gun who is set to make a name for himself).  The performance is a pretty good one, and the video work is also eminently watchable.  I’d love to know what you think.

Dennis Ferrante

Dennis Ferrante

Dennis Ferrante

John Seetoo

[This is a little different from previous Copper interviews as its subject passed away in 2015. John Seetoo interviewed Dennis Ferrante some time ago, and this is the first publication of their chat. John has also provided an annotated list of some of Dennis’ credits which helps us to have a better idea of Ferrante’s notable accomplishments. —Ed.]

This past June marked the 2nd anniversary of the passing of my good friend and music engineering mentor, Dennis Ferrante, from a heart attack which took him at age 65.  Brash, opinionated, incredibly talented and musical, Dennis was part of the NYC Record Plant East team assembled by Roy Cicala that included Jimmy Iovine, Jack Douglas, Shelly Yakus, and others who were responsible for a large portion of classic rock from the late 1960s through the 1980’s with records from John Lennon, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, and many others.

After Record Plant East closed, Dennis joined RCA studios, where he worked on records with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, SWV, Joe Jackson and many other artists, as well as remixed and remastered several CD boxed sets from RCA’s archives, including his Elvis Presley work with historian Ernst Jorgensen.  Dennis won a Grammy Award in 1999 for Best Historical Album from his work on the Duke Ellington CD boxed set, Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings: 1927-1973.

From The Rock Station 97.7 on Dennis Ferrante’s Obituary notice:

Longtime friend, bandmate, and colleague, producer Jack Douglas posted on his Facebook page: “I am so shocked and saddened to hear of the loss of my dear friend Dennis Ferrante. We worked and played together almost 50 years. One of the best. I will miss him.”

  • Ferrante’s resume reads like a who’s-who in popular music, but to rock fans, two acts will always be associated with Ferrante — John Lennon and the Raspberries. Ferrante, who was nicknamed “The Fly,” worked with Lennon throughout the 1970’s on such albums as Imagine, Some Time In New York CityMind GamesWalls And Bridges, and Rock ‘N’ Roll, along with the Lennon-produced Harry Nilsson album, Pussycats.

I managed to interview Dennis in between mixing sessions he was doing for a Bo Diddley live concert album.—John Seetoo.


John: Engineering has changed dramatically in the last 10 years as digital recording has made multitrack home recording ubiquitous.  What skills do you think are more easily developed by working in a professional studio that can’t be replicated in the home environment?

Dennis: In my opinion, catching the synergy between musicians as the song develops. There is a vibe   that happens in the room when musicians can see each other that’s lost when everything is done individually. I get excited when I see a song come together in a “live “situation as opposed to doing all tracks separately.

John: Do you have a standard protocol when doing a mix from scratch?

Dennis: I put up the entire song without any enhancement of any kind. Then I let the song dictate to me what it needs. Too many engineers immediately reach for the EQ button without listening first. If the song is recorded well, you don’t have to EQ the daylights out of it to make it sound good.

John: We have worked together in the past and you are a strong advocate for rhythm guitars, acoustic or electric, to help any kind of track.  Keith Richards also is a fan of acoustic rhythm guitar to help a song jell.  Any special philosophy behind this approach?

Dennis: Well, to me the acoustic guitar is like adding roundness to any song. It gives a fullness to which the rest of the mix can be built on. I like to build my mixes with the bass drum, bass, keys (if there are any), rhythm guitar and lead vocal. If you can get that sounding good, everything else should fall into place.

John: You did engineering work on countless records, including some classics, but some of the standouts include  Lou Reed’s Berlin, Don McLean’s American Pie, and John Lennon’s Imagine, Rock and Roll, and Walls and Bridges. What do you recall about making those records, and are there any specific anecdotes you can tell us, specifically with regard to microphones, techniques, or problems that had to be overcome?

Dennis: Well, Berlin wasn’t too hard to mix because of the musicians on that album. Great players make mixing a joy because they just play what’s needed and don’t fill in all the “holes”. American Pie was my first outing as an Assistant Engineer. I worked with an engineer named Tom Flye on that one who was a Record Plant engineer at that time. I’m also one of the guys singing on the end of the song.

Working with John (Lennon) was an incredible experience. He was easy to work with and fun to record. Although he hated the sound of his vocal with no effect on it while recording, he trusted me enough to tell him when I thought he got the performance. He said that the more effects one put on his voice, the better it made him sing. All the engineers at the Record Plant used basically the same mikes all the time. You’ve got to learn the characteristics of each mike and how it sounded on certain instruments in all of the rooms we had. There were certain characteristics in each studio but everyone knew how to work with them to achieve great sounding records.

John had a wicked sense of humor.  One time, he was watching the multi track deck rewind and asked me what would happen if there was no take up reel.  I told him the tape would shoot out all over the floor. He said, “Great. Put some blank tape on and let’s play a trick on Roy (Cicala).” So we loaded up some blank tape and John hit the switch.  Like I said, the tape spooled out all over the floor.  John starts yelling,”Fuck!  That’s my Master!”  Roy rushes in, looks down at the floor, and his jaw hits the ground in shock!  He gets on his hands and knees and starts slowly reeling it up by hand, apologizing to John the whole time.  John keeps on grumbling, winking at me behind Roy’s back.  We finally both burst out laughing!  Roy turns, looks at the half rewound reel, then stares at us.  It took him a few seconds to realize he got punked!

John: What was it like to work at Record Plant East with Roy Cicala and some of your colleagues, like Jimmy Iovine, Shelly Yakus and Jack Douglas, among others?

Dennis: Roy Cicala, Shelly Yakus, Jay Messina, Carmine Rubino, Tom Flye, and Jack Douglas were probably and still are, the most remarkable and talented engineers ever to come out of the Record Plant (and humbly, myself ). We recorded so many hit records back then it boggles the mind. I am proud to say that I was Roy’s protégé at that time and along with him and the other engineers I learned my craft very well, as some people have told me. Jimmy Iovine, on the other hand, was my assistant in the beginning and then became Roy’s when I started engineering on my own. Who knew what he was capable of back then and where he’d wind up now?

John: You were very involved in the Elvis Presley CD remixes that were produced by Ernst Jorgensen.  What were some of the surprises you encountered in listening to those original multitrack reels, and what did you like and dislike about new recording technology that was used on those projects?

Dennis: Earlier Elvis recordings were mono, so we left them they way they originally sounded without the false stereo, echo and what have you. The fun started when I started doing the ‘70’s box set. Here is where I could separate the tracks and with modern technology I could remix them with precise EQ that wasn’t available back then. I only used a little EQ to just separate some instruments sonically from one another making sure to keep the integrity of the new mix to the old one. I used the original machines Elvis used with the same EQ curve that was present back then. I then used mostly analog gear (EQ, Limiters, compressors, etc,) to complete the mixes. I then mixed to a digital PCM 1630 and then edited with the help of a Sony editor. The only thing I didn’t like about the digital technology was the coldness of everything. That’s why I chose to do all the mixing analog to digital.

When I worked on Elvis material from the 1970’s, I managed to get the original multitrack tapes and I found out there were all kinds of extra instruments, like percussion played by Ralph MacDonald, that never made the final releases.  The original stereo releases also all sounded a little unbalanced.  It turns out that RCA had to send the multitrack tapes to Memphis for the final mixes and their machines weren’t calibrated right, so there was a -10dB discrepancy between the stereo channels.  Also, those guys were used to mixing the early 60’s stuff so it looks like just muted the congas and other instruments they were unfamiliar with from the final mixes.  Ernst and I restored them and fixed a lot of stuff for the Walk A Mile in My Shoes Elvis boxed set.

John: You worked with Wynton and Branford Marsalis on their first few respective records.  In particular, Wynton was frustrated about not achieving a sound that he wanted for his trumpet that you finally solved, after creating a bizarre microphone placement setup and signal chain. Can you please elaborate?

Dennis: Wynton was not happy with the sound of his trumpet when he played. The Columbia engineer doing the session (I was the 2nd engineer on this date) was getting frustrated because inside the control room it sounded fine but the artist wasn’t pleased. So after about 45 minutes, I suggested that I go out in the studio and listen to what was being heard by Wynton. He kept complaining that his trumpet sounded “too small” and that it sounded better when it was recorded on his Walkman (a heavily compressed mic). After about 15 minutes, I realized that Wynton was hearing his instrument from a different perspective which included the ambience of the room (Studio A of RCA studios was about 150 ft long, 60 feet wide and movable ceiling height from 20 feet – 40 feet ). This cavernous room added another dimension to the sound of the trumpet. Additionally, all of a sudden it became clear what I had to do to help the situation. I added another U87 microphone over the top of Wynton’s trumpet to capture some of the ambient room sound just the way Wynton heard it in the room, added a little compression on just that mic and combined it with the other mic being used on the trumpet and when he came into the control room this time, he heard exactly the sound he wanted. The rest of the session went off without any more problems.

John: What would be your dream analog studio setup for recording and mixing?

Dennis: An old Neve desk with a couple of Studer 24’s, lots of Pultec equalizers, a few LA-2a’s (Universal Audio tube compressors), throw in a few UREI 1176’s, a nice selection of analog outboard, a cheeseburger and soda and leave me alone to do my thing.

John: What would be your dream digital studio setup for recording and mixing?

Dennis: I’m old school so I really have no opinion on this topic. I can work with anything. I just need someone else in the room that knows the gear cold. My preference is that I’ll let that person take care of the technical end and leave me to do the creative end. I’ve been recording, mixing and mastering for the last 38 years. Now I like to have fun in a session. Worrying about digital stuff makes me nuts but this is the future, right?

John: You have a Grammy for the Duke Ellington CD Box Set, but your history and pedigree are clearly in rock and roll.  What’s in store for Dennis Ferrante for the future, and what advice do you have for musical producers, engineers and artists in the 21st Century?

Dennis: I truly don’t know. I have a band and being a singer since I was 5 yrs old, I enjoy playing out and doing classic rock n’ roll tunes from 1960 – 1980. I feel is when music exploded and great music was being done. That’s why that there are so many reunions of earlier groups happening today and people are flocking to these concerts to relive their youth and try to forget their problems for 2 or 3 hours and just have fun. As far as advice to other producers and engineers in this century it would be this, don’t spend all your time wondering if your work is better than someone else. Do your best and the results will amaze you. Forget about AutoTune and make the artist or whomever keep doing it to get it right. I’ve been on many a session where producers keep going over a certain part to get it technically perfect. That’s fine but you’re forgetting the one most important fact. THE PERFORMANCE. Sometimes mistakes make a record. Just sit back and let the artist do what they do best. Perform. As far as artists in this century, work at your craft no matter what it is. It is not my aim to tell an artist what to do. They have to figure that one out for themselves and hopefully they will.


That’s the end of my interview with Dennis. I had the great fortune to work with him in his mixing of the movie, The Source of Power, and the title song. We forged a great friendship and I was able to learn a lot from him on a technical basis, and heard a number of captivating stories about some of the landmark records he worked on. Here are a few that I recall:

Walls and Bridges, Rock and Roll, Imagine – John Lennon

“John always wanted echo or other effects on his vocals.  He’d cut great tracks with top players like David Spinozza and then make his voice sound like it was underwater. We all thought it sounded fine as is, but he was JOHN LENNON!  I wasn’t going to argue with him!”

Approximately Infinite Universe – Yoko Ono

“I was still a junior engineer at Record Plant and this was going to be my first album engineering credit, so I was real excited.  Yoko’s taking down our names, so me and Danny Turbeville, an apprentice, were the last.  I was supposed to get Assistant Editor credit, and Jack (Douglas) was the Chief Engineer.  Told all my family and friends.  Record comes out, and she listed me as “Dennis Turbeville!” I was f***ing livid! I was certain for years she did that on purpose.”

American Pie– Don McLean

“It became a huge song, but at the time, no one knew Don McLean from Don Adams.  He booked time during the day, our cheap rate, and I got to assist engineer on it.  Long f***ing song, but it was catchy.  Cut it pretty quickly.  Had to get everyone into the room around a [Neumann] U87 to sing that end chorus.  You can hear it’s me singing, especially on that “this’ll be the day ‘til I die” line at the end.  Who knew then how big a 9 minute song would get, especially on AM radio?”

Berlin – Lou Reed

The opening piano introduction for the song “Berlin” is an amazingly intimate sound; the piano seems to be right in the room.  I repeatedly asked Dennis how he got it, but he would just smile and say, “Trade Secret.”  (I personally think it had to do with placing a pair of Neumann U87’s running through UREI 1176 Compressors into a Neve Board, but the placement was the key.) When discussing the album, however:

“Some of the best musicians in rock music were on there – Jack Bruce, (Steve) Hunter and (Dick) Wagner, Steve Winwood, Michael Brecker…hell, I even sang backup on it…it was great hearing all of these guys just play…and then Lou Reed comes in with that voice – his 3 note (vocal) range…it works on the final record, but the difference was comical if you were there at the time. Incredible songs.  Even Lou realized it, ‘cause he got better singers to do some of the songs when he did the St. Ann’s album concerts years later.”

Will Power – Joe Jackson

“Studio A at RCA was built for this kind of record. Full orchestra, like what they used to do with Sinatra.  It was a trip setting up for so many pieces to play all at the same time so you could hear the room at its full potential.  I was also impressed with Joe.  I always thought he was just a punk new wave Brit, so when he starts writing out charts for the horns and strings, I did a double take.”

Pussycats – Harry Nilsson

“John (Lennon) and Harry loved playing practical jokes. Who’s the most unlikely musician they should bring in to jam with?  They got the idea to jam with Paul Simon.  So they get someone to call him, and he shows up with his guitar. Paul plugs in, John shows him the chords and tells him to wait for his cue.  Band starts playing, Paul is waiting…and waiting…John says, “how come you didn’t come in?” Paul asks to try again.  Band starts playing.  Paul is waiting…and waiting…again, John says, “how come you didn’t come in?” Meanwhile, Harry and I are rolling on the floor in the control room! 3rd time, Paul comes in – John stops everything. “I didn’t cue you yet.” Paul storms out and packs up his guitar. “F*** him! I’m just as big as John Lennon!” The whole room goes so silent, you can hear a pin drop.  We all know that as big as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was, that is simply not true.  John cracks up, and finally eases the tension.  There were lots of moments like that.”

Live From Las Vegas, Elvis at the International, Walk a Mile in My Shoes, Blue Suede Shoes– Various Elvis Presley CD collections

“Working with Ernst (Jorgensen), I got a really good exposure to the whole range of music Elvis covered.  You can hear how he was trying to stretch and break out from being pigeonholed.  He did gospel, country, rock and roll, all kinds of music.  Live, he could still knock it out of the park.  When I remixed “An American Trilogy”, there was live video footage with it, so I matched the (stereo) panning to the camera panning.”

Raspberries-The Raspberries

“The Raspberries never got their due.  They were a great band, great songs, and Eric (Carmen) could sing with the best of them. Wish I could have done more of their records.”

Trio, Standard Time Vol. 1+2, Hot House Flowers, J Mood – Wynton Marsalis; Renaissance – Branford Marsalis

“Working with the Marsalis brothers was interesting to watch. You could see the family dynamic in action.  Branford was always laid back, joking, ready to play basketball just as soon as his sax, willing to play with anybody.  Wynton was very uptight at first; he seemed to feel like he had the future of jazz weighing on his shoulders and every little thing had to be perfect.  Once I helped him solve his trumpet sound problem, he loosened up a lot more and we were able to knock out a number of records.”

The Singing Ranger, Vol. 3– Hank Snow

“I originally didn’t look forward to working on this record.  I thought it would be old cowboy songs.  Turns out this is like the beginning of rockabilly.  Even George Thorogood did Hank Snow songs (“Move It On Over”). Had to clean up stuff, but the performances were great!  Not what I expected.”

Destroyer – Kiss

“Had lots of fun working with Kiss.  I also worked on “Beth”, that (drummer) Peter Criss ballad.  Liked those big drum sounds in the 70’s like Bonham on the Zeppelin records.  Later on, I got the chance to reproduce it on my own way. I brought a band into Studio A (at RCA Studios) and instead of keeping the drummer in the drum booth, I put the guitar and bass in there and brought the drums into the middle of the room.  It’s big enough for a 60 piece orchestra, and the acoustic design in the wood and everything makes for a huge sound.  Put a few mics back to capture the room and the drums sounded like cannons!”

Rest in Peace, Dennis.

Everything Matters; Nothing Matters

Bill Leebens

Audio is art and science. It is art. It is science. It is both. It can be neither.

After spending most of my life in this biz, it is evident to me that audio can be pretty much anything you want it to be: fulfillment of dogma, pursuit of fanciful mysticism, or on that very rare day when the stars align…music?

I’ve found that in spite of frenzied assurances to the contrary, yes, goddamnit, everything matters. Even with the most straightforward A–>B digital system, there is room to tweak/improve/polish with cables, grounding goodies, power clean-up, whatever. It is frustrating and maddening and beguiling. It is both heartening and depressing. It leaves room for improvement, and teases and mocks with the oh-so-maddening awareness that there will always be room for improvement. ALWAYS.

It is not for the faint of heart. It’s no wonder that audio is seen to be the realm of obsessive tweakers. Honestly, it kinda is—no?

As I’ve said before, I’m a gestalt guy: things either sound right, or they don’t.  I can and do turn and leave at demos of million-dollar systems if they just don’t sound like music to me. I’m not fond of dressing cables and cleaning terminals and nudging quarter-ton speakers with a hip-check, a centimeter at a time, no matter how rewarding the results. I’ll plead arthritis, if nothing else. I’m happy to let another more patient soul deal with it all.

Having said that, even at this late stage of the game, I’m particularly sensitive to digital distortion and artifacts, and frequently call BS at new of the latest wizardry and algorithms. Is what comes out music? If not, I could care less about the elegance of your theories.

So: as is true of most things in life, one can either find an amusing beguilement in the incredible, ridiculous complexity of it all, or find it a frustrating dead-end, a road towards insanity and depression.

I find it easier to just approach this stuff the same way I approach a hummingbird, darting and hovering in front of me: it’s a miracle, full of ineffable beauty and magic.

I’ll never understand it all. And I’m not sure I’d want to.

Dog Day

Roy Hall

“Give this to the taxi driver when you leave the hotel.”

The note read, in Chinese and English:  Dog Meat Street!

A few years ago I visited China to attend the Guangzhou hi-fi show. It was held in the White Swan Hotel. The White Swan is located on Shamian Island on the banks of the Pearl River.  Shamian Island was used for defense purposes during the first and second opium wars. Later it became home to many European consulates. The US consulate was there until 2013.

The White Swan was, because of its proximity to the US Consulate, the last stop for families adopting Chinese kids. The lobby, dining rooms and corridors were filled with young children, babies to 7 year olds, being constantly followed by overweight American adopters. Some of the little ones were sullen and withdrawn but most were delightful. It was a heartwarming scene.

The hotel is less gaudy than most of the Chinese hotels I have stayed in. The views from the rooms can be spectacular, depending on the air quality, which can be lousy. Guangzhou is one of the most polluted cities in China; one night, while walking back to the hotel I suddenly felt really ill. My chest tightened and I couldn’t breathe. My first thought was, I’m having a heart attack. My second thought was, I’m having a heart attack in China! I was about a hundred yards from the hotel so I willed myself inside. As I staggered up to the door it opened automatically and a rush of cold air hit me. I took a deep breath and instantly recovered. The pollution had used up the oxygen in the air and almost killed me. I really feel for the people living there. It’s worse than the industrial pollution I grew up with as a child in Glasgow in the fifties.

In Guangzhou, it is said, people eat anything with four legs, except a chair. I have eaten many things over the years: scorpions, ants, worms, grasshoppers, whole tiny birds about 2 inches long, snakes, big black beetles the size of large cockroaches, (the subject of another tale) but I had never tried dog. On the contrary, I’ve had a dog bite me, though, which involved dog-bite attorneys from Nehora Law Firm.  Let me clarify from the outset that I am a dog lover and have had dogs all my life, but the lure to try something different was too appealing. Before readers recoil, remember that many people keep pigs, rabbits, chickens, goats, mules, sheep and even miniature cows as pets while the rest of us see no problem thinking of those animals as dinner. As far as I can tell, the Chinese breed one type of dog for consumption. It’s yellow, weighs about 30 lbs. and is hairless. I decided I would try and find a dog restaurant. Not one of my friends or the hotel concierge could help me so I ended up eating homemade noodles and spicy beef in a Muslim restaurant. It was delicious.

The next day I flew to Guilin for a few days vacation. Guilin is a human-sized town, a welcome relief from densely overpopulated Guangzhou. It is famous for cruises on the River Li. From the boats you can see dramatically vertical limestone outcroppings, the very tall hills often depicted in Chinese paintings. Also visible on the river are boatmen fishing with cormorants. The fisherman put snares on the bottom of the birds’ necks so small fish can pass through but the bigger ones get stuck and are then retrieved.  I had a guide on the boat and after the tour, I asked him about dog restaurants. He thought for a moment and handed me the note to give to the taxi driver.

Dog Meat Street turned out to be a small alleyway a little bit off the beaten path. There were about a half dozen restaurants next to each other. To my great relief there was no sign of a dead dog or, as a friend, who had gone to one warned, the front half of a dog welcoming you. All the restaurants sported a large wok outside filled with cooked dog meat. It was chopped up into small pieces but some parts were recognizable. I chose the busiest establishment and sat down. A waiter approached. I speak only a couple of words of Mandarin and he spoke no English. I looked him in the eye and said, “Woof woof?” He nodded and left. A few moments later, he returned with a small burner, a wok, a portion of cooked dog meat, some broth, tofu and vegetables. He showed me how to put all the ingredients in the wok and left me to figure out how to cook it. I let it bubble until the vegetables were cooked through and started eating. Though the pieces were small and tender, the meat was very bony and you had to work hard to eat it. Those of you who have eaten a chicken neck will understand.

A few minutes later, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked around and behind me was a large circular table with about ten men eating. They all were holding glasses of beer and proceeded to give me a toast. I guess they don’t get many round eyes in this place. I called over the waiter, pointed to my beer and then to the table instructing him to send a round of beer to them. After he served the beer, one of the men invited me to their table. I brought over my food and we shared our meal. It was very jolly and we drank lots of beer and talked for about 2 hours. We had no common language but as the beer flowed it seemed to not to matter. All in all, it was a great evening.

And how was the food? It tasted a lot like lamb.

My Stereo Is Broken

Seth Godin

It’s not the buzzing of a ground loop or the scratching of a bad stylus. It’s silent. Merely silent, staring at me with reproach, speaking not a sound.

Okay, I’m a geek, I can handle this.

Let’s start on the Mac side. Check the output settings on Roon. Fine. Check the system preferences. Yep, they’re correct, the Dragonfly is set.

And yes, the Dragonfly is lighting up.

Let’s switch to the other USB port. No difference.

Okay, not the Mac. Not the DAC.

It must be the amp. Tube amps! What a pain in the neck.

But both channels at the same time?

I check the switch and the fuse. No luck.

Okay, maybe the amp is dead. Fortunately, I have another one, a little 300B SET amp. I swap the cables, the inputs and the speaker cables too.



Must be the DAC. I have this old DAC somewhere, oh, here it is, swap it in.


It must be a dead USB port. I Google and find the secret instructions for restarting the SMC. It’s not that hard.


About then, my wife (who’s considerably smarter than me), walks into the living room.

“How come the speakers aren’t connected to the speaker cables?” she asks, pointing to the four cables (all four of them!) disconnected on the floor, a foot from the speakers.

Well, how about that. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the dog. What’s going on here?

I’m busy coming up with people to blame, and not having much luck.

Then I look at the cables. The spades have sheared off.

It turns out that my new speakers, the extraordinary DeVore O/96s, have the speaker posts on the bottom. They might be the only speakers I know of that have this unusual set up. I’m at a loss for why they were designed this way.

As a result, though, the speaker cables take a 90 degree angle just before being connected. And my old speaker cables couldn’t handle it. Over time, they stressed, stretched and finally broke.

Here’s the thing: Without a doubt, my music must have been degrading for weeks as this was happening. Without a doubt, they must have sounded strained, and then there’d be just one speaker and then none.

Which is precisely the opposite of the narrative I’d been living with. The legend of the Devores is that they get better over time, that the break in period is this marvelous extended period of better and better every day.

And so I’d been telling myself that they were getting better every day.

I guess deep down I realized what I was actually hearing, that the reality of the sound being presented, was beginning to undermine my giddiness with my new speakers.

But the mind is far more powerful than the electron. It took silence, complete silence, to wake me up.

A few minutes later, the system was back together, the cables were newly snipped and reinstalled and the stereo sounded better than ever.

Of course it did.

The number one audio tweak of all time is simple: persuade yourself your stereo sounds great.




Charles Rodrigues