Issue 44

Trick or Treat!

Trick or Treat!

Bill Leebens

Welcome to Copper #44!

I hope you were able to attend the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. It was a big, bold show, and spirits were upbeat. I wandered around a bit, and was only able to hit a fraction of the 140+ rooms. A photo spread on the show is here.

Dan Schwartz continues looking at his influences; sadly, we conclude Seth Godin’s return engagement with some thoughts on what comes next;  Richard Murison offers a gripping look at Georg Solti's Ring Cycle Jay Jay French mentions the unmentionable audio word, cablesDuncan Taylor tells us about what went right and what went wrong with his latest recordingsRoy Hall remembers the early days of his career, not so fondlyAnne E. Johnson writes about a dynamic, versatile performer, Celisse Henderson ; and write about how being a musician is dangerous workand about an unjustly-overlooked anniversary---while the Summer of Love and Sgt. Pepper got all the attention.              .

Anne is back with a  fascinating  Something Old/Something New about The Great 78 Project; Industry News tells of  the closing of AKG's Vienna headquarters, the birth of Austrian Audio, and the closing of Cavalli Audio.

I'm happy to present a piece on digital audio from TAS and SoundStage! writer Vade Forrester; and our friend John Seetoo is back with ruminations on all that stuff that music-lovers accumulate.

We wrap up Copper #44 with another classic cartoon from Charles Rodrigues, and a Parting Shot of a Washington winery. >sigh<

Until next time----enjoy, and Happy Halloween!

Cheers, Leebs.

Issue 44

Issue 44

Issue 44

Paul McGowan

Dangerous Work

Bill Leebens

If 2016 was Snakebit, in terms of the number of musicians who died—what should we call 2017?

Sure, last year saw incredible losses in the music world: David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen, Pierre Boulez, Paul Kantner, Leon Russell, Ralph Stanley, Maurice White, Sir George Martin, Sharon Jones….and on and on. If you haven’t noticed, 2017 has been a rough year for musicians, as well.

Should we just say that being a musician is dangerous work?

You already know the big names, especially the most-recent ones. But still: seeing the sheer volume of familiar names is a little shocking. And this list is far from complete:

1/7/17: Nat Hentoff, 91 [Longtime Village Voice jazz critic]

1/24/17: Butch Trucks, 69 [Suicide]

2/12/17: Al Jarreau, 76

2/18/17: Clyde Stubblefield, 73 [Drummer for James Brown and many others]

3/16/17: James Cotton, 81

3/18/17: Chuck Berry, 90

4/11/17: J. Geils, 71

5/1/17: Col. Bruce Hampton, 70

5/18/17: Chris Cornell, 52 [Suicide]

5/27/17: Gregg Allman, 69

7/20/17: Chester Bennington, 41 [Suicide]

8/8/17: Glen Campbell, 81

8/22/17: John Abercrombie, 72

9/3/17: Walter Becker, 67

9/8/17: Don Williams, 78

10/2/17: Tom Petty, 66

If this partial list isn’t overwhelming enough, take a look at this list.

As was the case last year, many of these folks lived to ripe old ages. Allman, Becker, and Petty could still be considered reasonably young, but the first two had been seriously ill for a long while. The cause of Petty’s recent death is still rather uncertain.

The deaths that really caused twinges for me were the suicides. I’ve written before about the suicides of Cornell and Bennington ; unlike them, Trucks didn’t have a long history of depression, but was apparently overwhelmed by debt.

I’m not sure which type of death is sadder.

AKG Closes in Vienna; Cavalli Audio Closes

Bill Leebens

As reported in Copper #42,  Harman laid off 650 employees in its Pro Audio divisions. Since Harman’s purchase by Samsung last year, the company has undergone a series of contractions and consolidations, which many industry folks would argue were necessary given widespread redundancy in Harman organizations. The first noticeable effect of this round of layoffs was the closing of the Crown factory in Elkhart, Indiana; the second major effect is the shutdown of the Vienna headquarters of revered brand AKG.

That’s the bad news. The good news that the core engineering group from AKG has formed a new company, Austrian Audio.

As is true of pretty much anything related to Harman, this story isn’t as simple as it first appears. There have been no mentions of the Crown and AKG closures in any Harman press-releases, but it appears that AKG the brand will still exist, with products made in China—but whether the company will maintain its significance remains to be seen.

Here’s the first report of the formation of Austrian Audio; here’s an interview with the head of marketing of the new company.


Cavalli Audio, a longtime favorite of headphone listeners and the Head-Fi community, announced that the company would be shutting its doors at the end of October. The announcement from Alex Cavalli read:

“Dear Friends,

“It is with a heavy heart that I would like to inform everyone that Cavalli Audio will be closing its doors on October 31, 2017.

“I have been involved with this community for a long time and am forever grateful that I could play a part in the evolution of both the hobby and community since 2000. I have been privileged to watch and be part of the growth of a niche of dedicated headphone listeners, always in pursuit of better sound. I recall many conversations about how to improve sound and produce a better overall experience through headphone listening. This community has spurred much innovation in headphones, headphone amplifiers, and associated gear. Some of this innovation is now part of the products we can buy off the shelf. Truly something to be proud of, as few industries have been this influenced by the members of its community.

“For my part, I have been fortunate to create amplifiers that most people seem to really like. I am grateful for the support for these amps and for our fantastic customers.

“The reasons for ending CA are purely personal. I have been semi-retired during the life of Cavalli Audio and had always intended to pass along the baton once I had been able to establish a robust company with excellent products. I have been looking for such a partnership for some time now and have, unfortunately, not been able to form a reliable partnership with anyone to continue my legacy and at this point, there are a number of things more demanding of my time, including an ever-increasing collection of grandchildren.

“I have worked to keep certain aspects (the best aspects) of CA alive after the end of the company.

“The first part of this has been the work with Massdrop (as most of you are aware) to continue to make Cavalli designs available at affordable prices. When I was still considering moving forward with CA I had begun to create an entire line of lower cost, but still great sounding amplifiers. Though there are no certain plans beyond the CTH and Carbon, with any luck a few more of these new ideas can be made available through MD.

“With the closing of the company, all warranties will expire. I realize that this will concern many, but the amplifiers will continue to be supported by a reputable service and repair facility. To ensure this support, Avenson Audio has agreed to continue servicing CA amps. Avenson has done final assembly for every big CA amp and currently do all the repairs to CA amps. Current owners will be in good hands if such a need arises. A link to their website is on the CA website.

“I know that this news may come as a shock to many while others might have anticipated this transition. I would like to thank everyone for their support over the years. I love this community and its passion for all things headphone and have been made to feel part of its extended family. My obligations to my own family, however must take priority at this time.

“My thanks to all of you.


The fact that warranties will expire is a little troubling, and going to the Cavalli Audio website produces a warning notice.

The Great 78 Project

Anne E. Johnson

There was a time, in the first half of the 20th century, when several-minute segments of music were served up on giant black platters. This was the era of the 78s, shellac discs that spun at 78 rotations per minutes. Much of that material has been piled in basements and storerooms for the past many decades. But now the ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC) and Internet Archive is bringing those long-abandoned recordings back to life in an astonishingly ambitious endeavor called the Great 78 Project.

If you visit their website, you’ll find more recordings than you can possibly sort through, all of them available for free streaming. The count is currently at over 35,000, with more added daily. ARC claims its 78s holdings number 200,000, all of which need to be transferred to digital, then uploaded to the site. The physical records have been donated to ARC by libraries and individuals; ARC’s partnership with Internet Archives has made the digital transfer project viable.

Rather than reviewing the recordings themselves (a hopeless and frankly pointless task), I want to talk about the public site and the experience of accessing it. Once you’re at the home page, you’ll click “Listen” on the upper right. That takes you to a list of all the thousands of available holdings. Yes, you could just start randomly clicking. That’s fun, believe me: on the day I’m writing this, the top of the list is somebody called Chubby Jackson and his Orchestra, playing a pretty hep swing number called “The Happy Monster.”

But it’s also essential to be able to search and browse in useful ways. I’ll start from the perspective of searching. First question was, what do I search for in a database of 100-year-old rarities?

I tried a famous name: Ellington. I was surprised how many results that yielded, but after a few seconds I realized I’d unintentionally stepped outside the 78s project. I was seeing all the tracks available at Internet Archives, from all periods and source formats. On the left margin I had the option to tick a box next to “78s,” which yielded 295 results. But those were a combination of formats, including some videos (so why were they tagged as 78s?) and some had a “Borrow” or “Wait list” button (the Great 78 Project does not lend out its material, so these must be part of a different collection).

Returning to the Great 78 Project home page, I figured out my error. I’d missed a small box on the left margin labeled with a pale gray font: “Search this collection.” A-ha! I’d done a general search of the whole Internet Archives because that was the most obvious search box. So I tried the Ellington search again, and this time got nothing but 78s. Here’s a great one from 1934, called “The Saddest Tale.”

Of course, you might have no idea which artist you want to hear – discovering hidden gems is part of the point of this collection – so I tried entering other types of search terms. The word “Broadway” yielded over 200 results. Some were songs with the word “Broadway” in the title, like the silly “Broadway Polka” by Ray Henry and His Orchestra. Some were by artists with “Broadway” in their name, such as a fox trot called “Burning Sands,” recorded in 1922 by somebody called the Broadway Syncopaters.

And then there were items tagged as Broadway music when they were uploaded. For example, there’s a rather smarmy crooner version of “Stranger in Paradise” (from the musical Kismet) in an undated recording by Bud Roman and the Lew Raymond Orchestra.

As you’ll know if you use many library catalogs, sometimes searching is not the best way to find information, especially if you’re open to the unexpected. The other approach is browsing.

Browsing works through the use of tags attached to individual catalog files. The trick, though, is that every time a particular tag is used, it must be entered into each item in exactly the same way. Otherwise you end up with a mess. The Great 78 Project clearly uses non-librarian volunteers to upload the tracks and build the files, so it’s a mess. Let me explain:

Starting again from the complete uploaded collection of 35,000-plus entries, I hunted for a list of browsing tags to choose from. I found it under the header “Topics & Subjects” on the left margin (that left margin is jam-packed!). The tags were 78rpm, Popular Music, Jazz, Instrumental, Hillbilly, and Country. Beneath those was an arrow and the word “MORE.” So I clicked on that, expecting the list to expand a bit. Instead I got a huge pop-up, four-column list of hundreds of genres — not in alphabetical order! And capitalized words were distinct from capitalized, so one could choose either the genre “children” or (randomly, two columns away) “Children.”

By clicking a blurry little icon at the top I made the entries alphabetical, but now with capitalized words first, so “Children” and “Children’s” were on page 1 of the list, but “children” and “childrens” (no apostrophe?!) appearing as separate categories on page 3.

This is a big problem. When it comes to serious research, a library is only as good as its catalog.

You can also browse by year, which is interesting. The list of dates is –you guessed it– in the left margin; it bafflingly spans 1900 to (I kid you not) 2026. There’s also a list of artists as random and maddening to use as the genre list.

Despite these organizational drawbacks that might affect scholars, The Great 78 Project offers an infinite amount of entertainment to lovers of old recordings. Did I mention that, because their copyrights are expired, you can download most of these tracks as well as stream them? The variety is staggering, from opera arias to harmonica solos, from comedy bits to tangos. Here are a few of the more fascinating things I’ve dug up:

“The Delmar Rag” (undated), composed and played by Charles Thompson

“Steal Away to Jesus” (1919), sung by the Fisk University Male Quartet

“Vesti la guibba” from I Pagliacci (1920), sung by Mario Brefelli

“Nightingales, Actually recorded in Beatrice Harrison’s garden, Oxted, England” (1927)

“Song of India,” by Rimsky-Korsakov (undated), performed by an unknown chamber group

Organ Concerto in B-flat major, mvts II and III, by Handel (undated), performed by Dr. E. Bullock on the Westminster Abbey organ with an unidentified orchestra

“I’ll See You Again,” by Noel Coward (1940), performed by the Decca Salon Orchestra

“Ready Teddy” (1956 – the end of the 78s era), performed by Little Richard and His Band

As you can see, there’s something here for everyone with a curious musical mind. But be warned: it’s a mesmerizing rabbit hole twice as addicting as YouTube. So clear your schedule before you jump in.

[Sorry: I’ve got to stick in my two pfennig’s worth. The noise-reduction is nonexistent on these cuts, and emphasize every stereotype of 78s as being hissy and crackly. I’ve heard 78s—especially acoustical recordings played back through big Victrola and Edison credenzas—that sounded more real and alive than multi-million dollar sound systems. I’m glad these records are available, but I’m a little disappointed in the presentation.—Grumpy Ed.]

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2017

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2017

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2017

Bill Leebens

RMAF this year was back to full size, with the memories of tents and blocked-off rooms behind us. The show seemed particularly busy Friday morning, as you can see from the long line at registration shown above. The rest of the weekend seemed busy, with traffic waxing and waning as always. I saw more younger folk and females this year, and was glad of that. 140+ rooms made it challenging for anyone to cover all the rooms (not to mention the Marketplace and 70 tables in CanJam); as usual, I saw only a fraction of the exhibits. Sorry!

The day before the show: clear skies, beautiful weather, changing leaves. Perfect.

The all-new exterior of the Denver Marriott Tech Center. More than one exhibitor passed by the place, not recognizing it!

The fancy-schmancy lobby. It’s a lovely place…but some of us miss the Rancho Deluxe vibe of the old interior.

The completely-remodeled restaurant area. Those windows above used to be rooms with balconies. No more water balloons from drunken exhibitors….

Enter if you dare….

Can Jam: back in its proper space, after last year’s tent show. The calm before the storm.

Full house. What a difference a few hours makes.

This was a busy place. As always, I was struck by the relative silence. Headphones!

Tonearm gurus Tri Mai of Triplanar and Frank Schröder of…Schröder.

Paul McGowan of PS Audio, Schiit-head Jason Stoddard, Audiophiliac Steve Guttenberg.

Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds, in the marketplace.

Axiss Audio demoed speakers from Swiss company Piega with Air Tight amps.

Full house at Exogal, w/ CEO Jeff Haagenstad.

The cast-iron speakers from JERN, with the affable Ole Lund Christensen.

A badly-backlit “Captain” Bob Carver with his ribbon speakers. Lighting in exhibit rooms was often challenging.

Sam Willett of Classic Album Sundays, pre-recital.

Madisound featured speaker kits and components, as usual.

The amazing Vanatoo Zero speakers in the $500 Entry-Level room offered a real taste of major league sound for minor league bucks.

One of the Innovations rooms showed prototypes of a desktop acoustic lens system. Umm.

JWM Acoustics in the Al Stiefel room offered great sound and beautiful gear, including…

…genuinely stunning turntables, based around Rega components.

A striking cherry red amp from Dan D’Agostino—another challenging display to photograph.

Reel-to-reel tape decks in the J-Corder room.

Musical Surroundings had an impressive display of Clearaudio turntables.

The inimitable Philip O’Hanlon demonstrating Gryphon gear from Denmark.

The impressive VAC/Tannoy system.

Bea Lam of VTL demonstrating the Vandersteen/VTL system.

The PS Audio/Focal/REL system…which sounded pretty terrific, if I do say so myself.

The Rocky Mountain International Hi-Fi Press Awards, hosted by Roy Gregory.

Jana Dagdagan and Herb Reichert (the man, the myth, the legend) of Stereophile.

Dave Clark of Positive Feedback; Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity; Marjorie Baumert, head of RMAF; Michael Lavorgna of AudioStream and Stereophile.

At show’s end: Herb; Leebs; Scot Hull of Parttime Audiophile; Brian Hunter of AudioHead; Carol and Dave Clark; Jana; innocent bystander Alan Kafton; Michael; Tyll.

The day after the show: welcome to Colorado! Say hi, Buster!


WL Woodward

The Roaring 20’s changed life in America in radical ways.  The 18th Amendment  passed on January 16, 1919, and prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors ” within the US, one year after ratification.  Implemented by the Volstead Act, it resulted in every bar and saloon in the country closing on January 16, 1920.  This forced the manufacture and distribution of alcohol underground and changed the small local hoodlum gangs running numbers and hookers into major criminal forces running politicians and cities.

The 19th Amendment known as the WTF Act gave women the vote for the first time.  A revolution happened to the fairer class as more women joined the work force and started developing lives outside the home.  For the first time in America’s history more people lived in cities than on farms.  The earnings of the average household increased dramatically, and like all good Americans they looked around for places to spend it.  Consumer goods became more nationally ubiquitous with the start of national ad campaigns.  And what they bought a lot of were radios.

The first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, went on the air in 1920 and three years later there were 500 stations nationwide.  By 1929 12 million households had a radio.  Henry Ford revolutionized the manufacture of the automobile and in 1924 the cost of a Model T was $260 and by the end of the decade was not only affordable but was owned by 1 in 5 Americans, going from a luxury item to a necessity.  And they drove those cars to the movies.  In 1929 3 of 4 Americans went to the movies every week.  Langston Hughes, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Eugene O’Neill became prominent literary and cultural forces.

The decade was called the Jazz Age.  If it wasn’t for that pesky Crash of 1929 the era would have been remembered as the greatest time in our history.  And that jazz.  Jazz in 1920 was mainly a Dixieland/Creole experience, and the musicians spent that decade looking for new ways to invent, expand, experiment and exploit an idiom that was more and more in demand as the nightclubs sprang up around the nation and the world.  Louis Armstrong went from 19 years old and a prodigy in Oliver’s King Creole Band to a 29 year old recording star.

Louis Armstrong was married from the time he was 17 years old until the day he died, and pretty much continually, to four different women.  But it was his second wife, Lil Hardin, who influenced his music more than any other and who early on recognized Armstrong’s talent and potential.  In 1923 right after they were married Lil convinced him to leave Oliver’s band in Chicago and move to New York.  Lil Hardin Armstrong was a strong willed and single minded musician and business manager and she molded an often recalcitrant Armstrong, changing the way he dressed, appeared on stage, his stage presence, and even convinced Louis to play classical in church groups to expand his musical thinking.  Upon moving to New York he was hired in Fletcher Henderson’s big band.

This is 1924.  Big bands were just becoming important and swing was but a glint in Henderson’s eye.  Many musicians were working into swing, most notably Chick Webb, but Henderson was a master arranger and a major force in the development of the style.  Henderson went on to become Benny Goodman’s arranger in the early to late 30’s and was the creator of a lot of those great arrangements performed by Goodman’s band we remember so well.  But in 1924 he was playing a little constricted and within more of the confines of the ‘white’ bands like Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.  The arrival of Armstrong changed that.

Henderson recognized Louis’ talent, but was reluctant to let him break out.  He was not fond of his singing, and preferred Armstrong stay on the charts with his playing.  The band itself was full of talented but more classically trained players who seemed content to be who they were.  Armstrong was not, and would never be content to rest on laurels.  He wanted to be somebody and the few times Fletch let him sing or solo the reaction from the audience and the musicians showed Louis (and Lil) he was very special.  Armstrong was only with Henderson for a year and moved back to Chicago in 1925, but before leaving New York he was in demand all over town, recording with the great Sidney Bechet whom Armstrong remembered following around as a kid in New Orleans.  And he changed Henderson’s band, giving it more freedom and space.  But Lil had moved back to Chicago to take of her ailing mother.   Louis missed her and she convinced him to move back.

Armstrong was welcomed back as the returning hero.  Lil who came from Oliver’s band had created her own band and brought Louis in.  But by the end of 1925 it was Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five.  Here is a recording from that year featuring Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo ( still a percussive instrument in 1925) and Lil on piano.  The opening trumpet solo is wonderful and despite the tepid feud between Louis and the bop generation (Armstrong called it re-bop and “Chinese music”!) they give this solo props as probably the first hint of bebop playing.  This is a Joe Oliver tune called West End Blues and an early Okeh recording.


The sustained trumpet note at 2:34.  Yeah, go back.

By the 1930’s Armstrong had become seduced by the big band craze.  Tommy Rockwell from Okeh Records and the producer of some of the more popular Hot Five recordings knew Louis’ potential and introduced him to Louis Russell who had a hot band in Harlem.  Russell hired Armstrong and from here he learned the ropes of the big band.  Armstrong formed his own with a revolving door of great musicians.  The band was popular but Armstrong chafed under the rigors of being responsible for 12 or 15 musicians.  But he made some marvelous recordings including this, written by Hoagy Carmichael (an early Armstrong worshipper) and recorded by everybody, even Willie Nelson.


But despite the popularity of bands like Goodman and Glenn Miller, by the end of the 30’s running a big band was not something that could be done by many.  The war caused a hiatus, and then by 1945 the genre was unmanageable and all but dead.  In April 1946 Armstrong and his big band played the Aquarium in NYC.  Fans and musicians gathered to hear the greatest jazzman in the world.  But Pops arrived with one of the largest, loudest and worst bands in his career.  Time magazine gave the show a horrible review and it appeared Armstrong was headed in the same direction as many other big band leaders.  But a few months later an angel appeared in the form of United Artists.

UA wanted to do a movie to tell the story of New Orleans in 1917.  Titled New Orleans it featured Louis, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard (an early teacher of Louis’) and Billie Holiday, but more importantly put Pops back into a small ensemble setting.  The result was Armstrong started recording with big and small bands and fully realized that the small sessions could really beat the crap out of doing larger bands.  He started looking for better opportunities.  Armstrong was approached by Town Hall music director Bobby Hackett about doing a ‘one-night’ show at the famous hall.

On May 17 1947 Louis showed up to a packed house and went over the songs with the musicians because there had been no time for rehearsals.  But this was no large band where slackers could hide, this was a band made up mostly of musicians who’d played with him before and were some of the best in the industry including George Wetting on drums and Jack Teagarden, the trombone master, who’d recently given up his own big band because he was broke.  The result was a huge success and Louis and the All Stars were born.  The die was cast for the remainder of Armstrong’s career.

Satch solidified the All Stars and hired Velma Middleton as singer.  She quickly became a comic sidekick to Armstrong.  Her voice wasn’t strong but this woman could make an audience laugh and was great for Louis’ act which contained some silliness and downright vaudevillian relief.  She was a large woman, going three hundred pounds, who used to be a dancer and would do these James Brown type splits on stage.  Wish there was some video of THAT.  Pops loved her and so did the audiences.  Here’s Velma and Pops in 1947.


Jazz musicians had gotten pretty serious by this point starting with guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker playing the same Town House with their Be-Bop group in 1945, then into the 50’s with the invention of ‘Cool Jazz’ with the like of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.   Armstrong’s act, that had all that musical comedy, the campy grinning and eye rolling gave these serious blowers fits and even into the 60’s there were accusations of ‘Uncle Tom’.  His singing was often described as gritty and harsh (obviously by critics who’d never heard the previous ‘Stardust’ cut) and even derided his scat singing with criticisms that he’d just forgotten the words and was mocking the artists who wrote those words.  While touring Australia, 1954, he was asked if he could play Bebop. “Bebop?” he husked. “I just play music. Guys who invent terms like that are walking the streets with their instruments under their arms “.  In 1957 Armstrong took a radical stance on a Little Rock flamer involving desegregation of schools, even calling out President Eisenhower, calling him ‘two faced’ and having ‘no guts’.  Armstrong was roasted for his stand by the usual press, but he was genuinely surprised when none of the musicians calling him a tom backed him up.  Not one.

What these clowns really missed was Armstrong’s work ethic.  He played 300 gigs a year, evidenced by the fact he had four wives and only one kid, and was known by the people he worked with as a tireless worker.  Throughout his life he took his music seriously, even as he considered himself first and foremost an entertainer.  He bypassed the usual after gig parties and would instead go back to his hotel to write, both music and letters.  In the late fifties he was touring world- wide and was considered the Ambassador of Jazz, but he lost musicians when they became exhausted from all the touring.  Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s long time manager, was blamed for the killer schedule but the fact was Louis would have done it anyway.

In the late 50’s he toured constantly, as usual with a couple of world tours.  In 1960, he took a break from touring.  On the 1959 tour he’d suffered a heart attack and by 1960 was showing signs of health slowing him down.  But he recorded with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald.  His desire was unflaggable.  In 1963 he recorded “Hello Dolly”, which became his biggest hit, and in 1967 “What a Wonderful World”, recognized world-wide as classic Louis Armstrong.  These tunes made it into every show he did until he died.  He never had an over-sized ego when it came to his music.  He played what his audiences came to hear.  Audiences from all over the world.  In the mid 60’s he toured Africa, Asia and Europe including countries in the Soviet bloc.

By 1969 he was ready to celebrate his 70th birthday but his health was in the way.  In ’69 he didn’t tour at all, just rested.  His doctors proclaimed him ready to tour and he immediately embarked, but another heart attack sent him home for good.  Satch died a few days just before his 70th birthday at his long-time home in Queens, the first and only house he ever owned, on July 6.

In 1956 a remake of the Katherine Hepburn/Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant classic Philadelphia Story, this one called High Society, starred Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm and Louis Armstrong.  As you’d expect this was a musical, one of the distinct departures from the original. Obviously the musical factor set High Society apart.  Frank, Bing, and Satchmo?  The three first name guys all left permanent legacies, and the names still evoke memories.  I was 2 years old when this film first came out and I’m from the rock generation but I know what these men did and still do to the listener.  And the music.  Written by Cole Porter, each song had its own life and still flowed with the story line.  I am not a fan of musicals.  Usually the music is heavy handed, over used and more of an affair than a marriage.  I can count the musicals I love on one hand, and this is one of them.

The movie featured the 1956 version of the All Stars, Ed Hall on clarinet, Barrett Deems on the traps, Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano and Arvell Shaw on bass, all long time members (except  Young who joined the All Stars in 1952) of one or another of Armstrong’s big and small bands.  Fronted by Crosby for this cut, it explains for the Newport cognoscenti how jazz is made.  Der Bingle is having so much fun in this cut it brings me misty every time.  Yeah, this is sappy stuff.  Shoot me.




I need to give credit to two biographies of Pops that I used for a lot of material in this column,  Louis Armstrong by David Stricklin and What a Wonderful World by Ricky Riccardi.  Both recommended.

[A footnote: a year ago the only known footage of Satchmo in a recording studio was rediscovered after having been lost for almost 60 years. Interestingly enough, the recording was for Audio Fidelity Records, mentioned in this issue’s Vintage Whine column. Take a look and enjoy Satch in the studio.—Ed.]

Celisse Henderson

Anne E. Johnson

Sometimes indie songwriters also write theater pieces. Much rarer are those whose talents are so wide-ranging that they perform in Broadway shows and hit TV sitcoms. Celisse Henderson is in the second category.

When she’s not touring with Godspell or appearing on 30 Rock, Henderson is in the studio, accompanying her strong, rich voice with the many instruments she plays, including guitar, piano, violin, ukulele, bass, and African drums. She has a reputation as a warm and engaging performer (something else that can’t be said of a lot of indie types, who tend toward the introspective), and you’ll find plenty of video evidence of that below.

Henderson’s debut EP, Show & Tell, from 2010, was an impressive introduction to her work. She took the album’s function literally, opening it with a track called “Intro to Me.” (Maybe more artists should do this.) You do get to glimpse all sides of her in this song. The drums demonstrate her love of complex rhythm. Her big vocal range and depth of emotional expression is on display. And the rap section shows three equally important things: 1) She is proud of her African-American heritage and respects all its musical traditions; 2) She wants to use music to tell stories; and 3) This woman is not street, but stage. Her perfect standardized American diction reminds me more of “Witch’s Rap” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods than the work of Snoop Dogg:


Henderson is clearly steeped in many forms of jazz. She’s not afraid to step outside the regular rhythmic patterns expected in pop tunes, as you can hear in the bold guitar phrasing in the song “Baby Blue.” The lyrics employ a conversational style that happens to be sung: “I saw you open a door for an old lady in the street / I saw you give money to a man so he could have something to eat.” The way Henderson chews her words in this song evokes Alanis Morissette:


The EP Nashville Demos is not filled with the country tracks you might expect. The crunching guitar chords opening the first track, “Fool’s Gold,” announce that fact loud and clear. And Henderson can pull a sweet blues solo out of that guitar when she needs it. The vocal style and range say “jazz,” but the discomfiting harmonies say “grunge rock.” Whatever it is, it’s powerful:


It’s unusual for an artist to release a live performance before her first full-length album. But on-stage is where Henderson is most at home, so the 2012 EP Live at Rockwood Music Hall made sense. She offers up the song “Well” like it’s a personal message to members of the audience, as if each of them had asked her how she was feeling after a recent break-up. Even the choice of ukulele rather than guitar brings the scope to a more intimate level:


She shows off bebop-inspired piano chops in the song “Enough,” with its unpredictably accented, dissonant chords. Yet those off-kilter phrases aren’t just influenced by jazz. There’s a new school of Broadway composition – think Pasek & Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen or Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County – that relies on this kind of lonesome melodic wandering, especially in sad love songs.


Henderson’s broken heart turns out to be the theme for the entire EP. Fortunately, we also get to see her recover from it. (And here comes that country music I’d expected earlier.) “I’m Over You” is a bouncy bounce-back song. The lyrics don’t cover any ground a thousand songwriters haven’t trod before, but Henderson is such a skilled singer and she exudes so much enthusiasm that it’s hard not be drawn in:


Although she hasn’t released an EP in a few years, she keeps on writing. She also keeps on gigging (often at the terrific cabaret space, Joe’s Pub, run by the Public Theater in Manhattan), which gives her plenty of chances to try out new material. She’s too hip for the room in this funk-inspired number from 2016, “Crazy,” even if her mugging makes the words hard to understand:


The majority of Henderson’s songs deal with romance, good and bad. But like many American artists, she has recently discovered an urge to use her pen to react to the political landscape. The 2017 song “America” delves more into a pure rock style than is typical for her. Then again, she doesn’t see the situation as typical. “We’re having a breakdown, we’re losing control,” she sings. But she also has hope:

Stereo at Sixty

Bill Leebens

We’ve heard a lot about anniversaries in 2017, with it being the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper, the Summer of Love, the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, and much more. One anniversary that’s received zero attention to my knowledge—-is the 60th anniversary of the first single-groove Stereo LP, manufactured by Audio Fidelity in October of 1957.

Stereophonic sound reproduction is not new: two-channel sound was demonstrated as far back as 1881, when paired telephone receivers transmitted performances of the Paris Opera to nearby rooms where performances could be heard using a receiver for each channel/ear. In recent years, “accidental stereo” recordings from as early as 1929 have been unearthed by archivists and record collectors: performances where two or more microphones and cutting lathes were run simultaneously. When properly paired together and synced precisely, a stereo image emerges. As you can imagine, the task of syncing multiple 78 rpm records was not easy; recent compilations of such accidental stereo recordings utilize sophisticated software to synchronize the recordings and eliminate variances in speed  or pitch. A review of one collection of “reconstructed recordings” can be seen here.

1931 saw development of stereo recordings on both sides of the Atlantic: Fletcher and Keller at Bell Labs developed binaural electrical recording equipment and made recordings with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, while Alan Blumlein at EMI submitted patent applications for stereo recording techniques. There was continued development in stereo recording techniques until that pesky war intervened.

And then, post-war: Magnecord recorders, based upon (cough) bounty-of-war technology developed by Magnetophon in Germany, were adapted to stereo recording so as to aid in NVH (noise-vibration-harshness) amalysis for General Motors, of all things. By 1951, Emory Cook had released stereo reel-to-reel recordings of trains, setting a standard for stereo demos that continues until today, sadly.  A few years later, Cook cut stereo discs with separate grooves for each channel, played back by a two-headed pickup arm reminiscent of a freak snake in a circus sideshow.

playback system—two mono cartridges, separate grooves for each channel.

Fast forward a few years to 1957 : Westrex, an offshoot of Western Electric, demonstrated a single-groove 45/45 cutting lathe for LPs. Unlike the Cook system, it required a single, newly-developed  stereo cartridge to trace two channels at 45 degrees to one another in a single groove. Most major labels were offered development units and pondered their course of action; Audio Fidelity, a tiny NYC label dedicated to sonic spectaculars (those damn trains again!!) and titles designed to capitalize upon trends and current events, raised a stink until they got the ear of Westrex.

What happened then is characteristic of the sensationalist nature of the label. Westrex, trying to appease the squeaky wheel, cut masters of a disc of Audio Fidelity stereo recordings in October of 1957. Side one had the Dukes of Dixieland, a featured act of the label; side two had—you guessed it—trains and sound effects. Westrex intended the masters to be test-cuttings, representative of what could be done, but not really de-bugged and ready for release. There were noise issues and phase aberrations that they thought would render the record unacceptable for general release.

Sid Frey at Audio Fidelity didn’t see it that way: he saw an opportunity for the little label to gain a big profile.

The first stereo disc, AFLP 1872, was issued in a simple black jacket with a stuck-on gold label, unlike the sensationalist/cheesy covers that became a trademark of AF. 500 copies of the demo disc were pressed, and in mid-December, Frey advertised in Billboard that AF would send a copy to anyone who wrote him on a record company letterhead.

Bingo: a star was born, and despite the disc’s deficiencies, the little label had beaten the big labels to the punch.

Audio Fidelity’s first stereo disc, in a funereal black jacket. And what is it about trains??

The 1959 Fawcett magazine Hi-Fi Systems featured “Man On the Go”,  a gosh-wow, hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show profile of Frey which was classic little guy vs. giants hype. By that time, Audio Fidelity had issued a couple dozen sonic spectacular stereo discs, and was an acknowledged leader in the rapidly-growing niche market.

This article is so gushy that it must’ve embarrassed even Audio Fidelity’s PR team.

The label never achieved the level of respectability of  Mercury’s Living Presence recordings, and they very rarely achieved Mercury’s level of artistic merit or, to put it bluntly, class. Google “Audio Fidelity album covers”, and you’ll get a sense of the hucksterism and soft-core porn in which the label indulged.

And yet, and yet: Audio Fidelity was around for decades, and issued an astonishing number of titles, as you can see in an amazing work of obsessive-fanboy data-gathering, seen here and here.

Radio Shack and other companies kept the Audio Fidelity demo discs alive well into the ’70’s.  Cheesy or not, hucksters or not—happy 60th Anniversary to the first single-groove stereo discs from Audio Fidelity!


Roy Hall

“Where is Roy Hall? Roy Hall? Stand up.” My heart sank.

A lifetime ago I worked for the now defunct department store called Abraham & Straus. As manager of the furniture department, I was in charge of about eight people. They were a slimy bunch. One of them, Vinnie, was positively unsanitary. He would sidle up to customers, seemingly involving them in something conspiratorial. He would often whisper into women’s ears and engage them at a fundamental level. He was disgusting but he sold more than anyone. The rest were aspiring used car salesmen. I made friends with one of them, Emil. He taught me how fish out of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and introduced me to Beefeater Martinis for which I am eternally grateful. Unfortunately I caught him embezzling money from the store and he was let go in disgrace.

The bane of my life was Mel Wilmore, the store manager. He was a mean son-of-a-bitch that reveled in putting people down. His style was to walk onto the sales floor, find something wrong, yell at you in front of your staff and customers and make you feel like shit. Everybody hated him. He had risen up from stock boy to manager and had a chip on his shoulder. He was tall and thin and had bad teeth. He often shouted at me for one reason or another. One evening about ten minutes before closing he came down to the furniture floor. We were in the midst of renovations and in one area some sofas had been left in disarray. He went ballistic. We all had to stay late, after the store had closed, to reorganize the area. The following morning the interior designer arrived and saw the result. He then had a fit and we were made to redo all of the previous night’s work.

Part of the responsibilities of a manager was to do sales reports. After the store advertised a sale, the managers had to send in pages of reports about goods sold. This was before computers so compiling these reports was tedious. It was even harder for me because furniture was a ‘Big Ticket Item’ so named because the sales slip was large and contained a lot of information. It also had 5 layers of carbon copies and the one left for me was the last one. It was often blurry which made the report even harder to do. My reports were always late. Even if I came to work early I never managed to finish in time. This caused me untold grief. My boss would yell at me. His boss would scream and when Wilmore heard about it my whole day was ruined. I was warned that if I didn’t get it together, I would be fired.

It was the Fourth of July, the biggest sale of the summer and when it was over I looked at the stack of invoices and knew I was screwed. There was no way I could get through that pile in time. I threw caution to the wind and filled in the report using guesswork alone. I completed the report and handed it in on time. I waited for the storm. Nothing happened! A few weeks later there was another sale. I filled in the report the same way and waited: again nothing, and another, and another…

A few months later all the managers were summoned to a meeting with Wilmore. He had recently been on the warpath and the rumor was that he was fuming about the sales reports. The meeting started with him calling us a lazy bunch of good-for-nothings and then he started to scream about the tardiness of sales reports. We were all atremble. He called out individual managers by their names and systematically debased them. It was getting ugly when he said, “Where is Roy Hall? Roy Hall? Stand up.” I went pale. Not only was I about to be fired, I was going to be publically disgraced and humiliated in front of my peers.

“Roy Hall runs the furniture department. He has to extract the information from Big Tickets. His reports are always on time. If he can do it, you can do it.”

Cables? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Cables!

Jay Jay French

In the world of high end audio there is probably no subject as controversial then the retail cost of high end cables vs. what they really bring to system.

While that may be the subject of a more specific future article that I may write for Copper, this article is how, as a salesman, I tried to wrap my head around the process of “selling” them.

I first started working at Lyric Hifi in NYC in 1995, at that time the most expensive audio speaker cable Lyric carried was made by MIT and retailed for approximately  $8,000 a pair.

Just 1 year later MIT debuted yet another, more expensive speaker cable with never before seen large boxes near one end.

We were told that these boxes contained a network of electronic circuits that were supposed to control the frequency and time align the delivery to the speaker.

HP at The Absolute Sound wrote about them and Lyric, which always, somehow, had the hottest product featured in TAS at the exact time that TAS waxed orgasmically about something, carried the whole new MIT line.

In order to create further excitement at the retail level, MIT sent a couple of guys to spend two days at the store demo’ing the cables for us and teaching us (meaning the salesman) the reason(s) why the cable was so effective and, as a byproduct of this kind of “advanced” research, justify the new (and even more insane) cost of $12,000 per pair!

Armed with this new amazing and fantastic cable we could then explain (in depth and detail)  to anyone whose pockets were deep enough, why they “Had to have it”!

There is some of logic in all this, I guess.

I just listened to what the MIT reps explained to us and, after listening to these cables on our reference system probably convinced myself that they were “worth every penny”.

Having been at Lyric at that point for over a year and having the opportunity to play with some of the world’s most expensive “toys” I became less desirous of owning the stuff. Not that I didn’t avail myself of the connections I made and the great discounts I got. I did and I put together a really great but sanely priced reference system.

I just no longer jones’d about owning the biggest or best.

Just ‘really good’ now worked for me!

But still, this was Lyric HiFi, the most famous Hi End emporium and many of the clients wanted “the best” and one could never lose sight of that.

And then…

One day I walked into work and Mike Kaye announced that we would now be carrying not just another cable line but “The Best In The World”!

I can’t tell you the brand of the cable because I need to tell you about a conversation with the company’s president that probably said more to me about the entire high end industry than anything else I ever learned.

I don’t need a lawsuit (neither does Copper) but I do need to tell you what this cable president told me.

We were told that this new, incredible cable line was fairly extensive but the reference speaker cable at the top of the range was priced at a then staggering $22,000 for a 15 foot pair!


In 1997.



So then Mike says that the owner is coming to the store in about a week.

And, about a week later, in walked the owner of the cable company. He was unlike any manufacturer I had met up to that point. He had a real swagger: a hustler’s swagger. He was not an unassuming ‘nerd’ type.

As a born and bred Manhattanite, whose father worked on 47th Street in the Jewelry district, and as a  musician, I had spent years on 48th street, I knew a hustler when I met one.

I walked up to the guy and introduced myself.

I walked him into one of the demo rooms, away from other customers and said “MIT was here a couple of months ago to explain to us about the technology involved with their new cable line and especially how to sell their new $12,000 cable. What do I tell a customer when he asks why your cable cost almost twice that amount at $22,000 for a 15 pair?”.

His response, to this day, pretty much summed up my entire high end retail experience.

He looked at and said “Son. if somebody askes you why this cable cost $22,000 for a 15 foot pair, you just tell them that there is a lot of good shit in it!”

Then silence.

I was waiting for a laugh, a wink, some kind of humorous fallback…


I then said “You really want me to say that?”

He continued, “Listen, if a guy buys a Mercedes he doesn’t care how the steering wheel is connected to the drive train and the tires. It’s a damn Mercedes. If someone is spending 100k for a system that means he wants the best. My cable Is the best. Period. Tell if they want the second best buy the MIT!”

Sounds pretty logical to me and the complete opposite of the MIT presentation..

This was predatory, type A,  NY salesmanship to the max!

I told this to the salesman who sold the most and said (and knew) the least.

He said “See, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I always say, ‘This one is good, this one is better, this one is best’. Take the credit card and ring it up!”

This effectively marked the end of me thinking that I was going to educate a customer.

After this, I just started “selling” them.

Brothers In Arms

Dan Schwartz

While I’ve been contemplating my next piece, I’ve been thinking about my last one, and about the man who introduced me to audio, my father. I would be very much remiss if I didn’t also give the nod to the people who brought the reality of music into our house: my brothers.

Originally I set out to simply tell a little of the tale of my encounters with Jack Casady and Phil Lesh. But there were others — the telling kind of snowballed. And the road that I’ve been on, while not directly attributable to my brothers, was, at least, indicated by them. And so I write this, again, to, hopefully, inspire some reflection on the part of those who read this as to how they came to encounter our shared passion.

I’m the youngest of three boys, and very much the beneficiary of that. It occurs to me now that I might have grown up in the most amazing era in America: not amazing for everybody of course — no time can be that (at least not until we get to the time of Star Trek). A few years ago, I heard a friend’s daughter complain about these times, and that he and I had it much better. And: well, maybe so. The modern lament is that we’ve had 40 years of gutting the financial hopes of people like me.

But even though we had very little money, the public schools where I lived were first-tier, and the freedom to explore was at its peak. There was a strong sense that life was what one made it. And I knew fairly early on that I was going to be an artist of some kind (after a brief flirtation with the romantic notion of becoming a scientist — all it would take would be a radioactive spider or exposure to a nuclear reactor). Although we rarely fought, in later years, my mother would try to take me to task for that decision. I said she should blame herself, along with all the other adults around. You can’t expect a kid who gets non-stop praise for having some artistic skill to be afraid to take it on full-time.

As I wrote a few months ago, I had intended the expression to be visual art. The handy thing there was that all those adults around could tell if I was any good or not. (The principal of my school took pity on me in third grade and pulled me out of our once-weekly art classes and appointed me as the school’s artist-in-residence — I do recall a bit of a fight she had with the art teacher over that in my presence). But anyway: something else was afoot, and that made its presence known to most of us on February 9th, 1964.

I’ve heard time and again the tale of kids in the 60s with older siblings: it was the same for me. I might have been 7 when the Fabs came to the US, but that would mean my brother Peter was 17. He got the message, even if I didn’t. I saw it, but it didn’t mean then what it would come to mean later. When he went off to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY to get a degree in aeronautical engineering, his record collection began growing, and it would follow him to south Jersey when he came home. And that’s when my awareness began.

As a little kid, I had thought of music as two things: classical and everything else. And everything else was just like TV — fun but disposable; even the Beatles. In fact, the Beatles proved it, by being available every Saturday as a silly-ass cartoon.

But Peter, on his visits, was always playing Dylan, and Baez, and then the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, and then in 1967, when I was 10, he brought home Sgt. Pepper for my brother Bob (who was 11), and, well — that was that. As I’ve written before, I noticed a couple Beatles tunes before this,  “Eleanor Rigby” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, which were unlike anything I’d ever heard. But when I heard “Within You Without You”, I knew that music was ART. Really knew. That it was as worth pursuing as anything else.

The next spring I asked for (and received) Magical Mystery Tour: my first record. And Peter brought home a record that I fell utterly in love with: The United States of America. I remember driving down Oxford Street in London in early ’69 and hearing singer Dorothy Moskowitz on the radio:

You will find them in her eyes

In her eyes

In her eyes

And I knew that when my feet were on terra firma again, when I was back in the States, I would nab it. And I did: that was my second record.

In the meantime, Bob had taken up the guitar before we left, and when we got back to the US, he started playing in earnest. I mean, for real. He was quite serious, and very soon became one of the best guitarists in the area, and was, stylistically, utterly his own man. It’s impossible to describe him back then, but I’ll try: he was utterly not-blues based — like a cross between John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, in his melodicism. And then he started writing music, and it was gorgeous. This was my brother, writing like this. We both quit high school early to go to college, but he left Rutgers and went to Berklee (in Boston) at 16 with a letter of recommendation from Mike Mandel, Larry Coryell’s piano player — but only for a year. Later, Steve Swallow asked me where my brother had gone — he was in California by then — and said, “Anybody good leaves after a year.”

I didn’t get along with him very well: when I was 18 and planning to move to California to go to UC Berkeley, he called and invited me to come to San Diego instead to join his band with the something like the words “I don’t like you, but you’re the best bass player I know, and this band needs to be great.” I feel like a jackass for agreeing, but at the time, and for quite a while after, he was the best guitarist I knew — and his compositions were out of this world.

Peter and me in the Sierras, 1973.

Bob in the basement, circa 1970.

These days, Peter lives in Berkeley, Bob lives by the ocean, still plays and is a phenomenal guitar-tech, recently doing that on the road for the Eagles and Tom Petty’s band.  And we accept each other, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes not.

[Header pic is me and Bob, 1977.]

Confessions of a Beleaguered Music Fan

John Seetoo

While most Copper readers are fans of different types of audiophile gear, the one love that I would lay odds that is universal for all of us is the love of music. While we all have spent embarrassing sums at times on amplifiers, speakers, turntables, CD players, tuners, preamps, et al and regretted them afterwards, purchase of music is probably the single largest expense we all share.  I would venture to guess that readers’ collections that exceed 500 titles are probably ubiquitous and collections of thousands of titles would be more common than one might suspect.  I think some of my personal experiences might seem familiar to a lot of Copper followers:

I must confess that I have been a music-buying addict from age 10.  Growing up in NYC Chinatown, I would spent hours every week after school or work at J&R Music to browse cutout vinyl bins for records by artists whom I might have read about but never heard, and couldn’t afford to pay full price for a record that I might not like. My album collection soon took up an unfair amount of space in the bedroom I shared with my brother. I unashamedly admit that I  listened on a monophonic portable record player with a tiny 3” speaker during that time.

When we became musicians in our teens, guitars, basses and amplifiers took up what precious space was left. When I was 14, we received a hand me down Zenith hi-fi set up that was essentially a piece of furniture: two sliding panels on top revealed a record changer on the left and a tuner/amp on the right, built into a 4-legged dresser sized unit with a pair of speakers mounted roughly 30” apart – something that could have come from an episode of “Mad Men.”  While it was hardly high fidelity, it was true stereo, so I was able to hear discrete left and right channels for the first time.  A whole world of music listening opened up for me as I could finally hear Neil Young and Stephen Stills trading guitar solos from the left and right on 4 Way Street, the layers of Jimmy Page’s “guitar army” on Physical Graffiti, or the dense orchestration of Renaissance’s Novella and Annie Haslam’s five octave soprano soaring above the strings.

While I couldn’t afford the kind of hi-fi system that I read about in magazines or auditioned in stereo listening rooms, I was lucky to get a connection from a cousin’s boyfriend who worked in the stereo equipment business.  I knew enough to get a Grado cartridge, a belt drive turntable, a receiver with <1.0 THD, a cassette deck (for all of the other records I couldn’t afford), and speakers.  After hours of making myself a nuisance in many stereo listening rooms, I decided upon what is still my best stereo purchase to date, almost 4 decades later – a pair of Ohm C2 speakers.

Over the next few decades, my collection of titles would grow exponentially as my vinyl purchases continued unabated and was augmented with my cassette collection, which comprised live recordings of my band, out of print or import records owned by friends or borrowed from the library, and mix tapes.  When I finally moved to my first apartment, the entire collection and stereo followed.  I had to build a shelf unit to hold the stereo and my now burgeoning VHS tape collection, along with a small 19” color TV and VCR that I rigged to feed into my stereo system’s auxiliary channel to get stereo sound for the movies.

The Compact Disc became the latest thing.  I resisted for a few years, then succumbed on a post-divorce depression day and bought a CD player and a few discs.  A new addiction was born.  I tried my best to resist buying titles on CD that I already owned on vinyl, but the inclusion of bonus tracks self deluded me into justifying paying double the price for the same record (that often didn’t sound as good as the vinyl, since the analog to digital converters were still in their infancy) for an extra two songs that were left off the original record – usually for good reason.

As I got older, I continued to buy records, but CDs became my choice format as the A to D mastering improved.  Some of the stereo gear was replaced over time, but the Ohm C2’s remained.  My music engineering mentor, the late Dennis Ferrante, told me that JBL 4311 speakers were standard for Record Plant East mixing when not using the larger Altec or Urei systems.  To my delighted surprise, one store had the JBLs next to the Ohms in their listening room, and they sounded very, very similar.  Koss AAA headphones exhibited a similar response as well, so these became my main reference tools for mixing when I built my private recording studio.  I even started a job on Wall Street to pay for these expensive hobbies, as I soon realized that film and music work would never afford me the income to raise a family.

Flash forward to 2017:

Several recording projects and releases and a thousand or so more additional titles later, the whole paradigm has changed. My daughter has now graduated college and has her own place. As empty-nesters, my wife and I scaled down from a 3 bedroom in Manhattan to a 1 bedroom modern high rise in Brooklyn. The walls reflect contemporary construction and respectful volume levels are observed throughout the building.  She prefers the Marie Kondo aesthetic – anything non-essential is deemed to be clutter!  Her opinion is that with Netflix and Spotify, there is little need to have shelves of DVDs, CDs, Tapes, Vinyl, etc. and that speakers can be portable and Bluetooth connected, so there’s no need to mount them or put them on bookcase shelves.  My recording studio has been reduced to a Lexicon USB interface and my laptop running a DAW. I have snuck a few guitars into our home – the rest are in storage, along with the amps.  The rack mounted recording gear and all of the other analog equipment, now worth untold more money, has gone – some via eBay, some via donation.  My stereo is also in storage – although it will probably be considered antique when we finally relocate and I have a separate room where I will be able to set it up.  I still have the Ohms and the Koss AAA headphones.  They still sound great, last time I checked.

While I have been forced for space reasons to sell or discard a few hundred titles on cassette, vinyl and CD (that I have dutifully backed up on digital files), I still easily have at least 1500 titles in those formats – all in storage.  A small box contains my current rotating CD rotation, my wife’s concession to the otherwise strict Kondo aesthetic. Spotify certainly helps me to keep abreast of new releases, but the sound quality still leaves much to be desired, even on headphones. Bluetooth speakers are a least common denominator – everything sounds the same – better bass response and clarity than my humble Zenith hi fi of yesteryear, but a far cry from the luscious musical adventures delivered by my Ohms.

I think it is ironic that vinyl that I couldn’t give away when CDs were popular are now selling as collector’s records for $30 and up.  There are many titles that I still have, like Japanese only releases by Ryuichi Sakamoto or overlooked artists who never became popular on their own, like the hard to find live LP, Night After Night by Nils Lofgren. As convenient as streaming may be, there is still so much music from the analog realm that has yet to be digitized.

The pressures of living space aesthetics, economics, spousal imperatives, and growing older are some inevitable challenges for a great many of us music lovers.  For those of you who share my travails – hang in there.  Maybe you can’t hear the music you loved in its preferred format, but at least it is preserved in its original state, unlike lost performances of the moment during the centuries before recording technology.  For those who have been able to keep a foothold and maintain your preferred listening setups – I salute you and envy you at the same time.  The pleasure of listening to great music with an optimum sound system where one can just get lost  in the experience is one that should be cherished in this modern age. David Chesky mentioned in our interview that listening to music in a room and not on headphones is something that the current generation misses out on; I hope we are not the last generation that will be able to appreciate that kind of magic.

Lord of the Ring

Richard Murison

Sir Georg Solti was one of the preeminent conductors of the latter half of the 20th Century.  Many conductors are polarizing figures, particularly among the musicians over whom they hold sway.  It is in the nature of the beast.  But the polarizing opinions of Solti are equally distributed among musicians, critics, the general public, and even his fellow conductors.  Most unusually, Solti’s reputation was built upon one particular recording, or rather one series of them, Wagner’s legendary Ring Cycle which he recorded for Decca between 1958 and 1964.

The Ring Cycle is a demanding undertaking.  It is a series of four Operas of colossal duration.  Most of them go on for a good four hours.  It is the very definition of Heavy Opera.  Unlike most Operas, the Ring Cycle has no arias.  They are constructed like vast tone poems, with the various themes and ideas upon which the plot is constructed being represented by ‘leitmotifs’ – recognizable music fragments – which weave in and out throughout the entire cycle.  Wagner wrote all his own libretti, which are obtruse and allegorical, and in German.

The Ring Cycle is a compositional tour de force.  Not only did Wagner turn the entire concept of what an Opera should be upside-down, he turned the whole idea of how an Opera should be experienced upside-down.  He built a custom-designed Opera House in Bayreuth for the express purpose of performing the Ring Cycle.  To this day, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is used solely for the production of Wagner’s Operas.  And if you should want to go there and hear one, the demand is such that you will have to enter a lottery!

The design of the Festspielhaus was totally radical in its day, and to some extent remains so even now.  It has no boxes or privileged seating.  Wagner felt that all men were equals when it came to listening to his Operas, and there should be no privileged seating for those of high status, who would mingle with those of the lowest status who could still afford a ticket.  There is not a single bad seat in the house.  The orchestra pit is most unusual, not only in shape (a large part of it is in a shallow space underneath the stage), but also in the way its acoustics work.  The pit, the orchestra, and the conductor are totally invisible from the auditorium.  It is designed to project the sound directly onto the stage, and from there to be reflected back to the audience.  To that end, the violins in the pit sit to the right of the conductor, not to the left, so that their sound dispersion pattern favours projecting back over the stage.  The idea was that the sound would seem to emanate from stage itself, and by all accounts [I haven’t been] it is considered to hold good today.

Wagner wished for his Ring Cycle to be experienced as one single entity.  Das Rheingold, the first to be completed, was given its own premiere, but the other three, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, were not performed until the opening of Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876, as part of the first complete Ring Cycle.

Wagner was so determined to achieve the exact sound palette he had in his mind that he went so far as to design a whole raft of brass instruments especially for The Ring, and then commissioned instrument makers to go away and produce them.  [Bruckner and Strauss are composers who went on to call for some of Wagner’s brass tubas in some of their own symphonic works. Das Rheingold even demands an ensemble of 18 anvils with hammers, and (naturally) specifies the dimensions and weight of each of them!

Into this musical context we must also thrust a heavy measure of political context.  The Ring Cycle is dosed to the eyeballs with Germanic symbolism and mythology, expressed always in the most abstract of ideas.  It is therefore manna from heaven for those who would wish for it to be construed to support their own extreme philosophies, particularly as they bear on race, history and culture.  Wagner was also somewhat of an anti-semite, an attitude which seemed to develop relatively late in life in response to his perceived public adulation of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer – and not Wagner.  Anti-semitism was quite fashionably established across many walks of life in a mid-19th Century Europe which was still a good 100 years away from discovering political correctness.

When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement adopted Wagner’s music as being emblematic of what they perceived as their own philosophy, the linkage became indelibly cast for an entire generation of Europeans who faced death, destruction, and even extermination at the hands of Germany over the course of two world wars in rapid succession.  The Nazis perceived in Wagner’s writings support for their most extreme ambitions, and many observers were willing to take these interpretations at face value.  Even today there remains considerable disagreement over what Wagner’s personal beliefs may have been, and how to properly interpret them in the light of today’s very different societal mores.

At the outbreak of WWII, Georg Solti was a young conductor seeking to embark upon a career is his native Hungary.  He was also a Jew, and had the good fortune to find himself in Lucerne when the war broke out.  He was wisely advised not to come home, and saw the war out in Switzerland.  At the end of the war he was invited to participate in the reconstruction of post-war Germany by taking on the prestigious post of Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.  Although he had no real experience conducting Opera – and was a Jew to boot, never mind not being a Catholic – he took up the post and held it for 5 years before moving on to a similar post in Frankfurt.

Fast forward to 1956, and John Culshaw of the Decca Record company in London was anxious to record a major classical work that would showcase the capabilities of the new stereophonic music systems that were just being introduced.  He knew that the drama and sonorities of Wagner’s Ring Cycle would be absolutely perfect for the task, but received a lot of resistance within Decca because of the political ramifications.  This was, after all, only 11 years after the war, and in Britain the population was still on rations.  So the complications – and cost – of recording such a work were not to be underestimated.

But neither was Culshaw, and in 1958 the project got underway with the recording of Das Rheingold.  Georg Solti, by this time gaining a reputation as a rising star in the world of Opera – and not having risen so highly that his availability to commit to such an undertaking was not an issue – was contracted for the task.  The Vienna Philharmonic, the most prestigious orchestra of the day, were also signed up.  Culshaw wanted to recreate for the home audience the experience of going to the Opera, but he did not wish to record a live performance, with all the ‘warts-and-all’ aspects of doing so, even though it would have been a lot cheaper.  So he committed to a studio recording.  Also, he wanted the flexibility which a studio setting would give when it came to microphone placements.  His attention to detail was such that he even had 18 new anvils custom-made to Wagner’s original specifications.

Das Rheingold, the first and the shortest of the four Ring Cycle Operas, was an ideal vehicle to test the waters.  It would take less work to record it, and Decca could spend some time seeing how the record did before committing to the remainder of the cycle.  As it happened, Das Rheingold was a great success, outselling even Elvis Presley’s latest offering (to the enormous consternation of rivals EMI), but even so it was not until 1962 that the forces were reassembled to record Die Walküre.  By the time Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were completed in 1964 the whole enterprise was beginning to take on almost legendary status.  The BBC even sent a film crew out to Vienna to make a documentary about the recording of the Cycle which is still available on DVD as “The Golden Ring”.

Success was not an adequate word.  Solti’s Ring Cycle was a stunning success.  To this day this 15-hour exposition of some of the heaviest Opera on the standard repertoire remains the best selling classical music recording of all time.  Let me give you an idea of how highly it is rated.  In 2009, the Esoteric company of Japan performed a complete multi-channel digital remaster and released the result in a 14-SACD boxed set.  They put it up for sale in December 2009 in a limited edition of 1,000 sets priced at $800 by mail order only.  By April they had all sold out.

Solti’s recording of the Ring Cycle remains a tour de force, and is still regarded as probably the finest classical music performance – certainly the finest Opera performance – ever captured for posterity.  The success of the recording made Solti an international sensation.  He was appointed Director of the Royal Opera Company, Covent Garden, and from there went on to hold the Directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 25 years.  In each case he took over a provincial ensemble of no great reputation and shaped it into one of the finest in the world, collecting both admirers and detractors along the way.  Sir Georg Solti died in 1997, on the same day as Mother Teresa, and in the same week as Princess Diana.  But his name will forever live on in association with his great recording of the Ring Cycle.

Here is a cool YouTube extract from the BBC Documentary “The Golden Ring” that I mentioned.  The excerpt is Siegfried’s Funeral March from Act III of Götterdämmerung.  I think it captures the essence of Georg Solti and his Ring Cycle rather wonderfully.


Digital vs. Analog, Ad Nauseum

Vade Forrester

“What If Digital Had Never Happened?” writes Steve Guttenberg in the October 2017 issue of Stereophile. It’s a thoughtful, well-written piece. I just wonder why the audiophile community needs another piece glorifying analog recording and playback.

Digital has become the de facto standard for music recording and playback. Get over it. There’s no question that digital recordings can be made to sound bad—as can analog recordings. But do all digital recordings sound bad? Not to my ears—not by a long shot.

Why we must continue to flog the dead horse that is the analog vs. digital debate? Is there a lack of substantive issues to fill the pages of audio magazines? Can’t we just enjoy listening to both types? As a collector of LPs since the early 60s, of CDs since a few years after their introduction, of digital downloads since HDTracks first came online, and now a frequent listener to Tidal, I have had no trouble finding high-quality recordings in all formats and delivery modes. All types of recordings can provide rewarding listening experiences, just as all types can sound like crap, yet I’m puzzled at what seems to be increasingly shrill insistence from certain segments of the audiophile community that only analog recording and playback is worthy of audiophile attention; even claiming that digitally recorded music cannot be pleasant to listen to.

Here’s what I continue to believe: If it sounds good, it is good. You should listen to whatever you enjoy. But please, let others do the same. If you prefer the sound of analog recordings, that’s totally cool. But you’re missing something. Look at the ads for “new” LPs—almost all of them were recorded long ago. I’m not criticizing that music—there were great recordings of great performances made back then. I enjoy it as much as anyone, and listen to it often. But the LP market is virtually (don’t ignore the virtually) all reissues. And then reissues of reissues. How many copies of Sgt Pepper do you really need? If you want to listen to most recordings of music made in the last 30 years, you’re probably going to be listening to a recording with a digital history; probably recorded digitally, then distributed on a physical CD, downloaded, or streamed over the Internet. I’m not talking about new contemporary music, I’m talking about virtually all music recorded in the last 30 years, whether it’s brand new or was written hundreds of years ago. Newer LPs are quite often made from digital masters, and for some reason, are often deemed by gurus to sound better than the same masters reproduced digitally. For an interesting commentary on digitally-mastered LPs, see Brent Butterworth’s excellent SoundStage! article, “Do Digital Masters Ruin Vinyl Records?

Further confounding logic is the notion that reproduced music should come from a physical medium, whether a disk or a disc or a tape; of wanting to feel and touch and maybe even read liner notes about the product from which our music emanates. Some magazine gurus celebrate the touch factor as important to the enjoyment of listening to music. For a slightly handicapped person like me, or one for whom aging has reduced mobility, lengthy playback rituals are a pain (literally); if I have to observe such rituals, it significantly reduces the time I have to listen to music. But if you enjoy it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a complex playback process. Neither is there anything whatsoever wrong with enjoying music sourced from digital files, stored on a hard drive or network, and conveniently selected from an iPad. Personally, I’d rather spend my time listening to music than futzing around with an LP or CD, but, hey: it’s your choice.

Here’s the formula that works for me: interesting, well-recorded music + decent playback equipment + a convenient playback process = hours of enjoyment. If I change the formula to read interesting, well-recorded music + decent playback equipment + a longer, inconvenient playback process then that = fewer hours of enjoyment. Your mileage may vary, and that’s completely OK. I just hope we could agree to pursue our own individual routes to musical enjoyment without being bombarded with further claims of superiority for one method or another. Then maybe our debates could focus on something important—like music. Or is that audiophile heresy?

–Although Vade Forrester reviews audio equipment for The Absolute Sound and The SoundStage! Network, the opinions expressed here are strictly his own.




Charles Rodrigues

When Is It Time For the Next One?

Seth Godin

The most famous line about making comedy gets quoted a lot. Lorne Michaels says, “Saturday Night Live doesn’t go on at 11:30 because it’s ready. It goes on at 11:30 because it’s 11:30.”

The lesson is supposed to be that you shouldn’t indulge your fear by insisting on perfect. Perfect is, of course, the enemy of the good, and shipping your work and keeping your promises are essential attributes for the professional.

But there’s a flipside.

The flipside is that sometimes, profit-hungry, growth-focused companies ship things merely because it’s 11:30.

That new and improved thing is new, but is it really improved?

The fact is that most audio companies have high overhead and most audiophiles are ungrateful curs, unwilling to actively support the very companies that they claim they want to support. We seek out B stock and used deals and better prices and cheaper stuff, or at the very least, the shiny stuff that is the flavor of the day and the cover of the month.

Without a cycle of new and improved, most companies we like and depend on would disappear. We’ve certainly seen what happens to the designer who says, “my work is a classic, we’re not going to make new stuff.” He fades away.

And this, of course, is our punishment for insisting on specs and features and hype. Mostly hype. I know that we insist on it because I see it working, again and again and again. I’m guilty too.

The relentless Schumpeteresque cycle of creative destruction brought us all of the wonderful, best-in-the-history-of-the-world-or-at-least-lately, that we enjoy today. But it also creates a regular cycle of dissatisfaction, demonically making our stereo suddenly sound worse, even though we didn’t touch it, merely because the next cycle is here.

Can we end the cycle? Not in my lifetime.

What we can do, though, is insist.

Hey, Mr. Stereo Maker–it’s almost 11:30, better make sure your stuff is worth shipping.

(Originally published in Copper #8)

Hedges Family Estate, Washington

Hedges Family Estate, Washington

Hedges Family Estate, Washington

Bill Leebens