Issue 47

Issue 47

Issue 47


Welcome to Copper #47!

I'm alarmed at how rapidly 2017 is disappearing, and I'll bet I'm not alone in that. The days are long, the years are short, yadda yadda....

As mentioned last issue, we're pleased to have Professor Larry Schenbeck back. Larry's Too Much Tchaikovsky column returns in this issue with the musical question, "How Moist Is Your Music??" Alrighty, then.

What are our other regular columnists up to? Well, Dan Schwartz examines what makes a bass a bassRichard Murison begins a series on music-management software Music BrainzJay Jay French continues the '67 Psychedelic Shootout with a look at Are You ExperiencedDuncan Taylor tells us how he captures the sounds of bluegrass in live recordings; Roy Hall remembers major parties to which he wasn't invited; Anne E. Johnson brings us Crying, an indie group that may give you '80's video game flashbacks; Woody Woodward looks at the rise and end of The Band in his best piece yet; and I remember audio industry legend Arnie Nudell, and look back at a music biz that just ain't no more.

Industry News looks at Circuit City, ten years dead, but not gone yet; A. J. Hernandez concludes his series on southern Italian wines with a look at the complex history and mythology of Sicily; and Gautam Raja looks at how motorcycles and stereo systems are alike. Kinda.

Copper #47 concludes with another classic audio cartoon from Charles Rodrigues, and a Parting Shot from Paul McGowan.

Next issue, we'll begin a series on the real science behind cables...and yes, there is (or at least should be)  real science behind cables. I think you'll find it extremely interesting and thought-provoking.

Until then---enjoy!

Cheers, Leebs.

What Is a Bass?

What Is a Bass?

What Is a Bass?

Dan Schwartz

I’ve been contemplating this topic for a little while, although my reticence to finally put it to “paper” must be some kind of sign that I’m a genuine writer…. Anyway, Paul McG. asked me a few weeks ago: What is a bass?

Basses generally have four strings, likely due to their ancestors, bass viols, having four strings. Beyong that: there are lots of things that go into it, but the first that comes to mind is stiffness—which means materials. Because if you look at any bass, but in particular electric basses, you’ll see the history of attempts: some successful, some very successful, some marginal failures—and, of course, some complete failures.

I was lucky to start playing at a time that the building of instruments was going through a revolution in construction, style, and those materials — and extremely lucky to, out of genuine curiosity, forge lasting friendships with some of the real innovators. Those innovators have been trying all kinds of things, and for the most part, they continue to.

An early ’50’s Kay bass, exact date of manufacture unknown.

Although there were fits and starts from various makers, probably most significantly Paul Tutmarc of Seattle, who actually built a bass “guitar” in the 30s, and the wisdom and the serendipitous discoveries of Leo Fender are long-established (and many books have been written about it), so I won’t begin there. But it’s interesting to note that hot on the heels of the Orange County, California-born Fender bass came the Kay K-162, the Howling Wolf bass, utterly different in design and size. Chicago-based Kay had, until then, been primarily a maker of relatively inexpensive upright basses. Where the Fender is a couple slabs of wood with a bolted-on neck, the Kay uses more traditional technique: a deep, hollow build, and a glued-on neck. These, in the early ’50’s, were the first two commercially available basses. The differences in design of Fender and its chief rival, Gibson, are epitomized in that choice, solid-bodied vs. hollow-bodied.. Fender was simple, utilitarian, simply elegant and utterly ’50’s; Gibson (as well as Guild and Gretsch, it’s two large and rival builders) was more conventional— you might even say, fancier and more old-world. In Europe, makers like the German Hofner and the smaller and the less-expensive Swedish Hagstrom reflected a similar rivalry.

1959 Fender Precision, stripped and given a glossy “finish”. This was the trend in the 70s.

But the real changes in design came a bit later.

Rickenbacker, also in Orange County, California, had primarily been a maker of lap-steel guitars, but in 1957 they introduced their solid-body model 4000 bass: utterly alien in shape and a neck-through design; that is, the body halves were glued to the side of a neck that ran the length of the instrument. This would be made famous in 1964 with a gift to Paul McCartney in the form of its 4001 bass — a 2-pickup, somewhat slimmed-down version of the 4000.

Rickenbacker 4000. The date of manufacture is slightly controversial: the date written beneath the plate on the headstock says 1961, but John Hall of Rickenbacker has seen a picture of it and says it’s a 1957.

Just after the mid-’60’s, Rick Turner, a guitarist and novice builder from the Cambridge, Massachusetts folk-music scene, moved to New York and continued to earn his keep by playing and doing repairs, along with a little building. Someone sold him parts from a Gibson three-pickup Les Paul: just the electronics and neck, left behind in an abandoned apartment. Rick built a guitar for himself around these parts that’s since been called the Peanut, for its shape. Within a few years Jerry Garcia saw it, fell in love with it, bought it from Rick and made it famous by using it to record the his band’s landmark record Grateful Dead, known as Skull and Roses for its cover art.

Rick also began experimenting with neck-through designs. His so-called Pretzel guitar was his earliest foray, soon to become a new standard.

Next: an explosion in designs and materials parallels the popularity of the instrument.

[All basses property of, and photographs courtesy of, the Schwartz California Institute of Bassology–-Ed.]

Circuit City Bankruptcy Enters Tenth Year

Circuit City Bankruptcy Enters Tenth Year

Circuit City Bankruptcy Enters Tenth Year

Bill Leebens

Circuit City began by taking over the last few stores of the defunct Lafayette Radio chain, and was once one of  the largest electronics dealers in the world, and second only to Sears in sales of appliances. By the turn of the century, competition from Best Buy, Home Depot, and others led to declining revenue, and the stores became out of date and ill-kept; perhaps Sears could’ve learned from Circuit City’s bad example.

Finally, in November, 2008, the company filed for bankruptcy. You’d think that would be the end of the story…but not quite.

Having once been brought in to  run a smallish business through the byzantine process of Federal bankruptcy, I can vouch that it can be complicated, and tends to take longer than expected. But the Circuit City bankruptcy has just entered its 10th year. Even the bankruptcy of Penn Central—in its day, the largest bankruptcy ever—took less time to process.

Why on Earth has this bankruptcy dragged out forever?

Initially, the company filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, indicating the company intended to reorganize. That dragged on for a few years until creditors forced the company to file Chapter 7, which calls for liquidation of assets; and at that point, it took even longer for creditors to agree upon a liquidation plan. Claims exceeding $1.2 billion were filed by over 17,000 creditors, and court records show over 14,000 docket entries. Amazingly enough, more than half of the $1.2 billion in claims has been paid out, with still more to be paid out. In many bankruptcy cases, creditors are lucky to get pennies on the dollar—if anything at all.

And, oh: $182 million has been paid out in legal and professional fees.

The presiding judge has extended the term of the trust overseeing the bankruptcy estate until November 1 of next year. The hope is that the case will be wrapped up by then.

I’d say I wish them luck—but I’m not even sure what that means at this point.

Southern Italian Wines, Part 3: Of Gods, Monsters, and Volcanoes

Southern Italian Wines, Part 3: Of Gods, Monsters, and Volcanoes

Southern Italian Wines, Part 3: Of Gods, Monsters, and Volcanoes

Bill Leebens

The wine history of Sicily, like that of most of Italy, particularly the southernmost regions, is ancient, and colorful, replete with outrageous tales of gods –- both Greek and Roman –- frightful monsters and one still-active volcano. Couple this lore with Sicily’s own fascinating history, and you have the makings of a pot-boiler of a novel.

Consider that Sicily was ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, even the Holy Roman Empire. Then there were the Aragonese, the House of Savoy, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Bourbons and finally, Italy itself, after nearly 2600 years of subjugation to other cultures. Is it any wonder then, that the modern day Sicily seems so fragmented and disjointed?

It is as though one dropped and broke a mirror into a thousand little pieces, then picked up the pieces and carelessly glued them back together, thus creating an inadvertent dichotomy between the two sides of the same mirror. Other instances of this might include the city of Palermo. Palermo, the capital of Sicily, must surely be numbered among the greatest strongholds of art and culture in the world; to the average person, it is known as the place where the Mafia originated. This dichotomy exists even within the confines of the Sicilian wine industry, where historically, Sicily was a producer of oceans of high alcohol, barely-drinkable plonk, shipped off the island to fortify (body, color and alcohol) mainland wines. With the renaissance of Mount Etna as a top-drawer wine area however, and the fast-rising profiles of new stars such as Planeta, Graci and Cusumano, and already-established superstars as Tasca d’Almerita, Donnafugata and Firriato, the age-old dichotomy surfaces again: art vs commerce, quality vs quantity. Every producer faces this, of course. Perhaps because of its, um, colorful past, Sicily has lagged a bit here, in comparison to some of the other regions. Or it has, at least, but it does so no more.

The Ubiquitous Nero d’Avola

At once, the saving angel of Sicilian wine and its curse, Nero d’Avola is indigenous to Sicily; indeed, its origins have been traced back to the far southeastern coastal town of Avola, where it has been cultivated for at least a few hundred years. The “Black of Avola”, as the name is translated, is, in terms of commercial clout, Sicily’s cash cow, and is planted virtually everywhere on the island. Ostensibly a good thing, this also means that there is a lot of Nero d’Avola planted in places that it should not be. The resulting wines are what gives Sicilian wines a less than stellar connotation to some consumers. And that’s unfortunate really, because good Nero d’Avola is a pleasing thing!

Many people liken the grape to Shiraz, no doubt because of its sometimes gaudy robe of deep purple, almost black-colored rims, and its often easy, strumpet-like appealing aromas and flavors of crushed flowers and spiced jam –- blueberry and blackberry, thank you. While this “wine-speak” is fine for lazy                               sommeliers and wine-shop box-jockeys, it fails to convey the full experience of the grape. Yes, the grape has some of these descriptors, but somehow they don’t do justice to the complexities the grape is capable of displaying.

For example, the grape is a marvelous blending grape. In the wine called Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Nero d’Avola is blended in roughly equal measure with a grape called Frappato. The tannic structure of the Nero lends weight, color and size to the wine, while the Frappato brings beguiling fruit, almost whimsical in nature and aromas to the wine. This is the only DOCG wine in Sicily, and one of the wine world’s best all-purpose “holiday” wines. Top Cerasuolo producers to watch for are Planeta, Arianna Occhipinti, and Cos, while top Nero producers include Gulfi (upwards of six different cru bottlings) Tasca d’Almerita and Donnafugata, whose Mille e una Notte is a reference point for the grape.

Of Gods, Monsters and Mount Etna

 There is something primal about volcanoes, a sensation or a feeling writ deep within our collective gut, of something that is at once ethereal and awe-inspiring, tangible, even, yet utterly and ultimately ineffable. It might be their power: Vesuvius burying Pompeii, Krakatoa shaking the world. It might be their sheer mass: Mount Etna, for example, stands at 10,922 feet elevation and dominates the whole eastern side of Sicily. It might be a combination of the two, our awareness of their history and volatility, and the possibility that it could all happen again. Ashes to ashes…

Power, danger, beauty, peril –- Etna’s grandeur is inescapable. But something most people do not know about Mount Etna, is that Etna is a mountain of wine. In fact, the wines of Mount Etna can be, at their very best, the most refined and singular wines in all of Italy!

To best understand Etna, it is advisable to go back in time and lore, all the way to the Greeks and Romans. First and foremost, there is the tale of Hephaestus who dwelt in Etna. The son of uber-gods, Zeus and Hera, Hephaestus was born with a deformed foot, an inconvenient imperfection for which he was consigned to live under Mount Etna, where he became known as the God of Fire, or, alternatively, the God of Crafts. In either case, he became the God of Blacksmiths, or Craftsmen, and was responsible for, among other things the mighty thunderbolts of Zeus, his royal scepter, the arrows of Eros, the armor of Achilles, the chariot of Helios and even a magic chain-link net that ensnared an unfaithful Aphrodite “in flagrante delicto” with Ares. So impressed by the skills of Hephaestus, were the Romans, that they co-opted the myth of Hephaestus into their own mythology: they named him Volcanus.

Even more wild and fantastic than the myth of Hephaestus is the tale of Typhon. Typhon was the last son of Gaia, the Earth Mother and Tartarus. Typhon was also a monster, though not your ordinary run-of-the-mill monster. He was the king of all monsters, in fact. So monstrous was he, that the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus transformed themselves into animals and went into hiding when he was around. Standing, his head was said to touch the stars; instead of fingers, he had a hundred hissing dragon heads, and where his thighs ended, two giant viper coils extended far and wide. Only Zeus, alone among the gods, stood up to him –- but only after much browbeating from Athena.

The first encounter between Zeus and Typhon ended badly for Zeus. He was captured by Typhon, immobilized, subjected to having tendons ripped out of his arms and legs. With help from Hermes and Pan, however, his tendons were recovered. After an epic battle with Typhon, Zeus won in decisive fashion by dropping a mountain atop Typhon. This was no ordinary mountain either. This was Etna! Etna lore today suggests that the rumbling, the lava flows, the more or less constant belching of fumes and gases is all attributable to one very large, very pissed-off Typhon, still trapped under Etna.

Back-breaking and Expensive

 Mount Etna, Europe’s most active and tallest volcano has a lineage going back thousands of years, and virtually all of the vineyards on Etna were dictated by the direction of and stopping point of the lava flows, that have occurred over the centuries. These places are special because of the concentration of minerals in the soil and the sheer richness and fertility of the corresponding volcanic soil, which in more recent eruptions –- the last 600-1000 years, say –- results in a soil laden with black or red pumice, usually marked with small rocks and stones in the vineyard top-soils. As the volcanic soils decompose, they shift more to a fine black sandy soil.

No matter the top-soil, the one constant involved with claiming these vineyards is back-breaking excavation of, and extrication of the black lava that permeates the Etna landscape. It is everywhere and one does not try to become an Etna winemaker on a lark or whim. These lava rocks, true monoliths, are sometimes as large as twenty feet in height and six feet across –- a huge and expensive undertaking to remove them. This brings to mind the old chestnut in the wine industry: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business​? You start with a large fortune! [Hmmm—sounds a lot like the audio biz! —Ed.]

Just Three Grapes to Know

 There are three grapes to remember about Etna, and two of them are red. The lone white grape to know. Carricante, is indigenous to Etna, not grown anywhere outside of Etna, with the exception of a solo nut job in California.

Carricante is a strongly-flavored wine, tight-lipped, and typically unforgiving in its youth. It is characterized by a strong sense of minerality, and sensations of fresh flower scents and citrus fruits that will one day emerge. The vineyards of Milo, a small picturesque little town on Mount Etna’s southern slopes produce a Carricante of exceptional clarity and authority, wines marked by a salinity from the sea nearby. Not surprisingly these wines are allowed the opportunity to be labeled as Etna Bianco Superiore and are allowed an extra degree of alcohol in the finished wine.

Given time in the bottle, Carricante can blossom into deep, gold-colored, profoundly complex expressions of Etna terroir. Among the top producers to seek out, Benanti Pietramarina is the greatest producer. Other dazzling bottles come from Pietradolce, Alberto Graci, Tenuta di Fessina and Ciro Biondi.

A Tale of Two Reds

 Two reds are all one needs to know about Etna, and they both begin with Nerello: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappucchio. By far the greater of the two, the Nerello Mascalese, named after the nearby Plain of Mascali, is capable of producing the most graceful, the most elegant, the most Burgundian-styled wine in all of Italy. Some examples I have encountered over the years have reminded me much of a Premier Cru Burgundy, and on a few special occasions have crossed the line into full-fledged Grand Cru Clos Saint Denis (Domaine Dujac) territory. That’s considerable power aligned with grace and complexity, what used to be called a “velvet fist in an iron glove.” And that’s what Nerello Mascalese can achieve.

Nerello Cappucchio, allowed in blends with the Mascalese, derives its name from its characteristic hood-shaped clusters of grapes, that were said to resemble the hoods of the Cappucchin monks of old. It is a rounder, plumper style of wine than Nerello Macalese, lower in acidity and not possessing its profoundly deep cherry and spice aromas and flavors. At its best, however, in the hands of a skilled producer such as Benanti, it can be a delicious quaffer, a patio wine par excellence, a good holiday table choice.




Gautam Raja

The house just down the hill was having a lawn party with a live blues band in attendance. I was at the back of our own home when I first heard the music drifting in. It was at just the right volume to sound as if I’d left the audio system playing in the front room, and yet—after the first second or two—I knew I was listening to live music. But how was I so sure? As I sat down and tried to work it out, I was reminded of my first “real” motorcycle.

I’ve always loved two-wheeled vehicles, human or engine powered, and until I bought my Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 in Oman, the largest motorcycle I’d ridden had a displacement of 350cc. India was, and still is, an acutely fuel efficiency conscious market, and big bikes simply wouldn’t sell. (Consider that gasoline today is currently over $4 a gallon in a country where the per capita GDP is about $6,000 against the US’s $57,000).

Though this smaller of the Sportsters was the baby of the Harley line-up, its 883cc engine had more displacement than our then family car back home in Bangalore, a little Suzuki van. I still clearly remember riding off from the Harley dealership, and experiencing that V-twin torque for the first time. It felt as if I could hitch a house to the back of the bike, and tow it.

Even at relatively low levels, the live music from that garden party had that same sensation of massive power. There was the feeling that a lot of air was being moved quickly and effortlessly. All the sounds had a fullness and texture, and it wasn’t just the drums that showed this dynamic scale but the singer’s voice, the guitars, the harmonica. (When I hear “dynamics” I tend to think of a snare drum which is overly literal, but it helps to remember that when in the vicinity of a drum kit, even one played softly, the sound of the snare is so sharp and sudden, it makes one blink, as if each beat is a puff of air in the eyes.)

I’m still developing my ear’s voice (now there’s a mixed metaphor for the ages), but am pretty sure that I’m a “leading-edge man”. Not for me warmth and rounded corners—I’d rather the system erred on the side of harshness than sacrifice snap, crack, and eyeblink.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that not a year later, I was trading the Harley for a very different motorcycle. I wasn’t nervous of large engines any more (and that slow-revving twin was easily wrung out), and had gotten used to riding in the high-speed, car-dominated city of Muscat. A Ducati 748 is a system that errs on the side of harshness alright—a race replica that rubs the texture of the road into your palms and butt, and folds you up to somehow seat you inside it rather than on it. It was high-strung and exhilarating. It took V-twin power to a whole new level, and combined it with huge amounts of headroom. I’d hit 100 miles an hour without even realizing it.


In the last couple of years, I’ve been lucky to spend lots of time among some ultra-high-end audio systems. The flagship system at the dealership I worked for, and still help out at, is north of $500,000 retail. Scattered about the store are a few systems that clock in at least at half that price.

“Dynamics are essential in order to have the music ‘pluck your heartstrings’,” wrote Jim Smith in one of his series of “Subwoofery” articles for Copper.

Set loose in that audio wonderland, you’d imagine I’ve had quite a few moments where the music has plucked at my heartstrings. I have, but not as many as you’d think. I’ve learned that heartstrings are immune to the retail cost of whatever you’re listening to.

Thinking back now, my favorite “heartstring” moments have involved subwoofers. The first was when we were setting up a pair of top-of-the-line subs from a well-known brand, two black behemoths that looked like the rib tips from a rack of grand pianos. This was the first time that I heard what a good “sub-bass system” could do, even to a highly optimized $500,000 set-up. When done right, you don’t even know the subs are on. Until they’re turned off. Then the soundstage collapses before your disbelieving eyes. Yes, I said “eyes”–it’s almost a visual effect, so pronounced is the sense of space.

Some months later, the designer of those very subs visited us, and added subwoofers in stereo pairs to two very different systems. The first was an under-$10,000 “budget” system with bookshelf speakers. No surprises when the subwoofers took the performance to a whole different price point. The other was a system that sat somewhere around $250,000.

After the subs were set up, the designer played a track that began with some studio banter whose humor depended on some excellent, unintentional comic timing. We laughed. He turned the subs off, and played the track again. It was still funny, but we didn’t laugh. The subs went back on, and he played the track again. We laughed.

Yes, the subs actually added humor. With the subs off, the track was the playback of an event that had happened at a remote place and time. When they were on, we breathed the air of the recording space, and had an acute sense of the moment. It was as if it was happening right then in front of us. And because of that, the track was funnier with sub-bass reinforcement. It was a profound demonstration, and I knew then that my home system would one day have a pair of sub-bass units, no matter what.

Consider that when you add two subwoofers to a system, you’re bringing in as much as 1,000 or 2,000 watts of extra amplification. You’re adding significant transducer real estate—a pair of the models I’m eyeing would add 3 sq ft of driver area to my system (counting passive and active). And because you’re able to position these large pistons independent of your high frequency needs, you can use room reinforcement as a lever.

You are, in effect, moving to an even bigger engine, with huge amounts of torque. By increasing the total energy of your audio system, you’re chasing down the essence of why that band down the hill sounded unmistakably live and real, even from a distance.

After listening from the back of the house for a while, I walked out and through our gate, to stand by the wall overlooking the yard where they were playing. They were not a great  band, but even so, I stood there a long time listening to song after song, really enjoying the music.

Hey, they had dynamics on their side.

The Band, Part 2: From Dylan to The Last Waltz

The Band, Part 2: From Dylan to The Last Waltz

The Band, Part 2: From Dylan to The Last Waltz

WL Woodward

There were many remarkable moments in the history of The Band.  The first was the incredible luck we all had that these teenagers found themselves in the same band at all.  I’ve been in probably two or three great bands out of all the bands that went through my life, but you can use yer left foot to count the bands with all players as equally talented and apposite as these 5 knuckleheads from Ontario. Extremely rare, even amongst very successful bands.  Even the Beatles only had three really talented guys (let the e-mails commence).

Second, these five young guys found themselves in a touring band backing a successful R&B guy with solid bookings.  They were the Hawks from 1961 to 1964 and they quit Hawkins and went on their own as Levon Helm and the Hawks and there seems to be little evidence this was a problem with the Hawk himself.  The guys played around the Ontario circuit and made some friends.

Third.  Helm, Hudson and Robertson did some session work for John Hammond Jr. on his So Many Roads  album.  In late 1965 Dylan was looking for a backup band he wanted for more electric work and Hammond recommended the Hawks.  Dylan went to see the Hawks at a small club in Toronto.  Yup.

Number 4.  Dylan hired Helm and Robertson for his backup band but after two concerts Helm and Robertson went to Bob Dylan, one of the largest stars in the current folk lexicon and told hisself that the Hawks were a unit.  You take all or you take none.  The tambourine man accepted and the Hawks were in.

Now comes a watershed snapshot in rock history.   Dylan was the bard of the unwashed, the godson of Guthrie and Seeger, the lover of Baez and the icon on the acoustic folk throne.  But he wanted to go electric and he couldn’t have chosen a better band to back him up.  They were perfect.  Except.

The folks coming to see Dylan on the 65/66 tour were looking for Blowin in the Wind  with a lonely Bob at the mike but got the Hawks rockin Like a Rolling Stone.  The derisions and boos were so bad that Helm left the tour after a month and went to work on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast.

OK now that’s Number 5.  Levon Helm had grown up wanting to be a musician since the time his parents brought him to see Bill Monroe when he was 6.  He joined the Hawks before he graduated high school and spent the next 7 years of his life doing what he loved and in that short period ended up on a world tour with Bob fucking Dylan.

Jeez, life sucks.

At least it sucked enough to send the guy to an oil rig.  I have always loved Levon, his voice, his driving drumming, his Americana.  Something must have been really bad on that tour.  Certainly, it distressed Dylan as well as he became more and more belligerent with the derision but thank God for the man.  That tour was perfect for rock, and spawned a railroad of talent and new directions for everybody within hearing.

But, we still have Levon on that oil rig.

In July 1966 Dylan ran his beloved 1964 Triumph T100 into a cracked vertebrae and a much needed break from amphetamines and the touring that breaks everyone eventually.  He retreated to a cottage in West Saugerties in upper New York and brought music, drugs, artists, Moon Pies, Yoo-Hoo and the Hawks to the still and starry life of Woodstock.

Big SALMON?? Yeah, no: Big Pink.

Richard Manuel, Danko and Hudson rented a salmon colored house at 56 Parnassus Lane in West Saugerties where a series of jams with Bob Dylan in the basement, with pipes, laundry, car parts and a clothes line, became some iconic..um basement tapes.

So here’s Number 6.  After two years on the oil rig, Levon Helm returneth.    Do you have any idea how long I would have lasted on a Gulf oil rig after leaving a tour as Bob Dylan’s drummer?  Hint.  It’s somewhere south of two years.

6A.  Any idea how many of your original band mates would still be together after two flippin years?

October 1967 Levon rejoined the Hawks and they changed their name to the Crackers, then the Honkies, but it just didn’t have the ring of say,  the Meat Puppets or Cherry Poppin Daddies.  So in spite of alternatives, or because the record company called the day before pressing, a flash of creative smoke curled up on a coach behind the pool table (probably Manuel) said “Hey man.  We’re The Band.”  Those were the days.  I remember spending hours trying to name our bands.  Hours.  Finally you fall asleep in a tequila haze, waking up hours later shouting “Penis Envy!” and there you have it.

The Band.  They collaborated and wrote songs together and released their first album Music from Big Salmon.  The record company objected because it sounded like a Disney project.  So they changed the name.  Music from Big Pink.

Now this is early 1968 and the world was listening to Sgt Pepper, Jimi’s Experience, the Who.  And then we heard this.


The songs from this remarkable, smoke filled lesson in soul were rehearsed in the basement of the salmon house in Woodstock and when they went to the city to lay the vinyl they were asked how they wanted the tracks to sound.  They looked at each other and said, “Well, like they sounded in the basement.”

The next year they released The Band.  Their second album was a ride in dusty Americana smelling of driving on state roads when you don’t have to, then stopping in a honky tonk because you don’t have to.  Robertson had taken over song writing on most of the tunes, with co-writing credits only on three others.  And this Ontario son wrote like Twain loading a pipe, sunken on a sofa and staring into a fireplace.


1970. My favorite album by these guys, Stage Fright. There are many reasons why one album by any band captures you. The memory of a girl in a yellow print dress on a perfect summer afternoon, the 8 track player in your mother’s ’67 Bonneville, or dancing down St 73 in Vermont with a back pack full of Wild Turkey singing Time to Kill in yer head because we didn’t have no earbuds and climbing the face of Mt Horrid because yer just too drunk not to.


The Band continued to tour and record through the early to mid 70’s.  In 1974 Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan had both moved to Malibu, and the other band members followed.  Living in Malibu in the mid-70’s and still writing about the wilderness of American thought couldn’t work, both on personal and creative levels.  In 1975 they released Northern Lights-Southern Cross which apparently no on liked but me.

By 1976 so much had changed.  I had been married for two years.  Nixon had resigned and was replaced by another Nixon and so on. Robbie Robertson met Martin Scorsese and decided he wanted to make movies.  Fuck this band shit.

The Last Waltz is arguably the most bitter/sweet documentary ever filmed.  You can’t watch it without thinking Robertson was the only guy on the set that thought retiring was a good idea.  What?  We’re musicians. Whatta we gonna do?  Where we gonna go?  Is that salmon house in West Saugerties still available?  Can we just start over or keep going?  What happened to Robbie?  Movies?? Really??

The Last Waltz is also a powerful musical statement.  You can tell from the performances that no one was done, not even Robbie.  The joy and the power were crazy.  And everyone was so damn young.  Folks like Eric Clapton basically early in his career, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell singing her new song just released Coyote, still my favorite of hers, the Hawk, and Dr. John.

On one level I don’t know what happened to these guys, what could have caused such an ending, an impasse just as they’d graduated to a private plane, a nice hotel room and limos they didn’t arrange.

On another level I know exactly what happened.  Sometimes you just want to go home.






Anne E. Johnson

Remember those frantic, chirpy sounds that old 8-bit video games used to make? Did you know there’s a pop subgenre inspired by those sounds? Wait, don’t run away. Chiptune, as this style is called, doesn’t have to be awful; it just needs to be in the hands of a band like Crying.

While they were in college in Purchase, N.Y. in 2013, singer Elaiza Santos got together with guitarist and synth-programmer Ryan Galloway and drummer Nick Corbo. Besides the 8-bit sound effects, their influences were electronic pop and other sounds of the ʼ70s and ʼ80s, with a touch of punk and grunge thrown in. But chiptune was a consistent style underlying all their early songs.

I’ll throw you into the deep end. Here’s “Bodega Run,” from the 2013 EP Get Olde, an ode to going to the convenience store that might also be a love song in disguise. Brace for impact:


Once the nerves in your teeth adjust to that freaky, squeaky sound, you notice the odd production balance: Why don’t they turn up the voice? The obvious assumption is that these young kids didn’t know how to produce a record. But Santos’ thin voice drowning in the swirl of electronica is a signature feature of every Crying song; most significantly, it remained that way when Get Olde was remastered rereleased with added tracks by the indie record company Run for Cover in 2014 as Get Olde Second Wind.

Seeing that much consistency, I believe it becomes our job as listeners to figure out why this is the case. It strikes me as an indie statement. Isn’t obfuscating the voice, which in standard pop music is blasted out at godlike proportions, kind of a middle finger to industry expectations? It also allows for some appropriate millennial symbolism, given that their whole lives have been an avalanche of electronics. And they grew up knowing that, if you need to know the lyrics to a song, you can Google that. Hey, the record company even pastes the lyrics under each video on YouTube.

While it still uses the chiptune sound, “Rat Baby” is more tuneful. I like the sardonic humor in the lyrics (which I read online, of course) about the painful decisions we face when cleaning out junk from past phases of our lives: “Living in the same boxes of hand-me-downs is getting old, plus you’re chubbier now little girl.” But there’s philosophy hidden behind those toe-tapping bleeps and bloops: “Where’s the formula for separating waste from what can remain?”


The song “ES” provides a glimmer of proof that there’s more to this band than Super Mario fluff. The usual electronic busy-ness runs upstream against a genuinely lyrical melody and thoughtful poetry by Santos about defining herself: “I’m frightened more than usual, lately. I do not translate into ‘one of the boys’ ‘lotus flower’ or ‘chinita.’”


2016 brought Crying a new drummer, Kynwyn Sterling, and the band’s first full-length album, Beyond the Fleeting Gates. Plus there’s a lot more experimenting with other musical styles than on the previous EPs. In “Premonitory Dream,” the wobbly Casio tones of the intro open up into some grungy guitar licks for a change. It’s also helpful to have Audiotree Live videos of the band performing the songs. Santos has a soulful presence that does not come across in her voice alone.


The most surprising track on Beyond the Fleeting Gates is “Wool in the Wash.” What, no chiptune? And notice how the sustained notes in the voice — reminiscent of The Cranberries or riot grrrl bands of the ʼ90s (and yes, that’s ancient history to these musicians) – blends with a 70s light rock sound in the drumming and the gently distorted guitar chords in the chorus. More of this weird combo, please!


In current America, no artists scoping out the landscape for stylistic influences can avoid rap for long. Sure enough, the tell-tale half-spoken rhythms show up in “There Was a Door,” but only in the verses. Rap blends well with a chiptune underpinning (subtler than usual), which makes sense; both styles are more about rhythm than melody.


I have to wonder, what’s next for Crying? What other genres will they use to flavor their songs? Here’s hoping for a jazz element in a future song.

But maybe the more interesting question is, what follows chiptune? There must be representative sounds in 2017 that will seem retro and cool to the college music-makers of 2047. We just can’t hear them while they surround us.

Brainz The Size of a Planet, Part 1

Brainz The Size of a Planet, Part 1

Brainz The Size of a Planet, Part 1

Richard Murison

There is a seismic shift underway in the manner by which consumers interact with their music. We can feel the first tremors, and some of us are even starting to get our first glimpses of what the post-shift world might look like. But for the most part, like with all paradigm shifts, we are only ever going to be able to fully comprehend it with the benefit of hindsight. You think I’m talking about things like TIDAL and Spotify, but I’m not. I’m talking about data.

All of our music has data associated with it. Whether we own the disc, LP, digital download, or even if we are just streaming, there is a lot of data associated with that music. Historically, most of that data has been provided on the LP sleeve or CD booklet, and includes information such as who is playing on the recording, where it was recorded, who the producer or balance engineer was, who wrote the music, and so on. Other data exists elsewhere (for example, on the internet) and might include such nuggets as, which other recordings the producer produced, when and where the performer was born, who else has recorded the same music – and even what a balance engineer is, and what he or she actually balances.

In the brave new world of digital audio, the technology already exists – it has long existed in fact – to put all of this data in a place where its relationship to the music can be cataloged and accessed on demand. It is what we term metadata, and includes Album, Artist, Track Title, Composer, and so on. This information is embedded into most digital audio file formats where the playback software we use can read it and make use of it. In the screenshot below (taken from iTunes) every single thing you see – every word, every picture – has been extracted from the album’s metadata.

This metadata is what actually makes the process of using iTunes as a tool for music playback at all possible. Of course, we don’t see Tilson Thomas’s birthday listed, nor do we see who the balance engineer was. And we’re still none the wiser as to what the balance engineer actually balanced, or if anything was even balanced in the first place. But it’s a good start.

On the other hand, there are some things that, intuitively, you might like to do, but can’t. For example, I would like to be able to click on “Michael Tilson Thomas” and be shown a list of other recordings on which this person appears. I would like to be able to click on “Symphony No 7 By Mahler, Gustav” and be shown a list of other recordings of this work. I would like to click on the album art and be shown a PDF of the CD booklet so I could browse through it. I would like to be advised that “Michael Tilson Thomas” is the conductor, and that “San Francisco Symphony” is the orchestra, instead of having to rely on my own common sense to draw those inferences. All these things are not only feasible, they actually present no technical challenges whatsoever if Apple wanted implement them. The seismic shift will occur when those things – and many others like them – actually start to happen on a routine basis.

At this point it is fair to ask what is preventing any of this from happening right now. Part of it is inertia – that’s the bit that stops Apple from writing the code and pushing it out with the next major update of iTunes. But that’s being unfair to Apple, because even if they did write that new code and roll it out, it would only serve to emphasize the main obstacle is really the central issue to all this; the one that is holding back the paradigm shift from actually happening … access to data. You see, there is no straightforward way for iTunes to grab that data – especially if it’s not in your files’ metadata. And very little of it is.

Right now, the metadata that is found in digital audio files is typically limited to the track title, the album title, the track and album artists, the composers/songwriters, the year, the track number, and some user comments. This is because these formats have arisen in an ad-hoc manner, primarily reflecting the personal wants of the original developers, rather than through serious consideration of the implications of its adoption in a comprehensive and global manner. Concerted efforts have been made from time to time to expand this limited metadata into what I term “rich metadata”, but these efforts have always run into their own dramatic, and generally show-stopping drawbacks. However, that is not for this column.

This column is about where all this rich metadata comes from in the first place. Because, the 800 lb gorilla in the room is that it doesn’t come from anywhere. While the music industry has indeed published all this information – historically in the booklets that come with CDs – it has not typically made it available in any indexed or searchable form. This is important, because if I have the capability in my digital audio files’ metadata to store the name of the track’s balance engineer, then there needs to be a way I can access an online source and specifically request this item of information. So if one source decides to publish it as “balance engineer”, and another publishes it as “engineer (balance)”, and yet another as “Recorded by”, and so forth, then the process of extracting that information is going to be awfully cumbersome. Indeed, another source may publish the information as “Other”, and it is not until you retrieve that data set and find an entry which reads “Fred Blowthrough (balance engineer)” that you have an opportunity to extract this information. This means you can’t just retrieve the “balance engineer” entry, but must instead retrieve all of the “Other” entries and post-process them afterwards.

So for rich metadata to work, a realistic prerequisite is for the data to be cataloged in a comprehensive, systematic, and unambiguous format. Right now, there is no such format that everyone has decided to agree upon. Which is not the same as saying suitable database formats don’t exist – they most certainly do – but there isn’t one that the industry has broadly agreed upon to be the standard. So you might well ask, if metadata is so important, then how come the situation is such a mess? Well, it’s a combination of things.

There is the fact that putting together such a database represents a phenomenal amount of work, and in return for doing all this work most people tend to have the reasonable expectation that they should be able to get paid for it. Gracenote and Rovi are examples of rich metadata databases that are accessible on a fee-for-service basis. Roon is an example of a business that has essentially wrapped a product interface around a rich metadata database as a means of monetizing it. There are others. But these vendors offer their service at a premium price, one that anybody who downloads music player software free of charge is not going to consider paying for one minute. And none of those can currently be integrated into your software player of choice – take iTunes as a simple example – even if you were willing to buy a license to do so. Finally, even those premium services – with their premium access fees – do not necessarily deliver total data coverage. In reality, they are not significantly better (where significance is evaluated with due regard to the $$$$ you have to pay to access them) than the free service MusicBrainz, which I am going to discuss in some detail.

Where do those premium data services get their own data from? Many – maybe most – of the serious record labels out there have internal databases which store a lot of this information. But each label’s database is private, in its own format, and stores only the data that it has decided it wants for its own internal purposes. It is an inward-looking capability, designed solely to meet its own needs, not an outward-looking one designed to meet someone else’s needs. In addition, let’s not forget that this is the music industry we’re talking about here – not exactly the most enlightened business leaders on the planet. These are the same people who still think in terms of their digital studio masters being “Crown Jewels”. So it is not at all clear that they actually have any interest whatsoever in cooperating with the process of populating third-party music metadata databases. If you are a premium music metadata provider, you therefore need to be scouring the catalogs of every single record label or music source out there, and reformatting the data you find into a consistent form within your own database. That is a huge challenge, and one for which there are no ready-baked solutions that I am aware of.

However, all is not lost. There is a major, free-access music metadata database out there, called MusicBrainz. It crowd-sources all of its data, and has been around since the turn of the millennium. Its origins lie in what many still see as the CDDB/Gracenote fiasco. CDDB (which changed its name to Gracenote) was the original crowd-sourced music metadata pioneer. However in about 1998, it took the controversial decision to start charging a fee to access its data. Since this data was all crowd-sourced, and unpaid, many people felt aggrieved by what they saw as little more than brazen corporate appropriation of public property. Today, Gracenote is a very successful enterprise, and has expanded the scope of its database activities into video, sports, and even automotive areas, and is a part of the Nielsen group (of TV ratings fame).

MusicBrainz was essentially a spin-off of the crowd-sourced aspect of CDDB/Gracenote, and continues to operate in that format today – crowd-sourced and free-access. When I first started looking at MusicBrainz I was not particularly enamored of what I saw. Being a crowd-sourced activity with precious little in the way of a budget, their promotional efforts are not as slick as you might be used to seeing. It comes across as clunky, difficult to use, and the community has a kind of hacker vibe, dwelling mostly as it does on IRC. If you want to learn about MusicBrainz you really need to dig into it seriously. I started to do that in January of 2017, and as a consequence I have now developed a huge respect and admiration for what MusicBrainz has accomplished. The people at MusicBrainz have thought through just about every aspect of what a music metadata database should be, and the result is surprisingly close to flawless. Where there are apparent flaws, these are mainly the result of the crowd-sourced nature of the project, and the fact that crowd-sourced data must always end up reflecting any flaws which have crept into the norms of broader usage.

Over the next couple of editions of Copper, I will be digging into MusicBrainz in some detail, and looking at how a resource such as this can both enable the development of a high-performance music server product, and at the same time limit its effectiveness.

Brit Psychedelics

Brit Psychedelics

Brit Psychedelics

Jay Jay French

First a word about what/who is not on my Psychedelic Shootout  list:

Fever Tree—debut album

Yes, I had the album, and yes, I played it fairly often… but it did not make any kind of lasting impression.

Rotary Connection—debut album

See above.

These, and others, came and went. Such was this amazing year. Why any one album stands out is strictly in the ears of the listener. Just because it isn’t on my list doesn’t make the music from that year is any less relevant. I only had the time to digest what I digested. I do, however, want to thank everyone who reads my columns for their observations and opinions.

And now….

Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced

So, first off, is Jimi a US artist, or a British artist?

The world of experience (no pun intended) of both locations played equal parts in this story.

In terms of his debut album Are You Experienced, the album was created and recorded in the UK under the watchful eye of manager Chas Chandler, late of the Animals, who discovered Jimi in the summer of 1966, playing  in a house band called Jimi James & The Blue Flames at the Cafe Wha? in NY’s Greenwich Village. Another house band at the Wha? was The Glass Stairway. The Glass Stairway was from my neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I had auditioned in my own band, The Prophets for the Cafe Wha? gig 6 months earlier but didn’t get the gig; I did however keep the phone number of the owner, and got the Glass Stairway their audition in the spring of 1966. I was 14 years old at the time.

Frederick Rivera, a local drummer and friend to both the members of the Glass Stairway and me, remembers the day that Chas came in and sat with Hendrix at a corner table. Frederick was also sitting with Jimi shortly before Chas came in. Apparently the club was buzzing about it all day. It was a meeting that would change pop music forever.

Shortly after that meeting, Jimi left for England.

Chas put all the pieces together, including bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. He also brought in a young British engineer named Eddie Kramer. The relationship between Kramer and Hendrix has become legendary and Eddie, to this day, is the one person in charge of the musical legacy, in terms of being hired by Janie Hendrix to oversee the Hendrix tape archive.

I also hired Eddie Kramer to produce some of Twisted Sister’s earliest demos in NYC in 1979, recorded, in part, at the then-newly rebuilt Electric Lady Studios.

Eddie and I recently talked about the recording sessions of Are You Experienced.

Eddie remembers that Chas kept a very controlled atmosphere keeping his eye on the budget but, according to Kramer, in acknowledging Jimi’s extraordinary talent for playing and composing, Chandler  proclaimed the following:

“The rules are, there are no rules!”

And OMG, what an understatement.

Are You Experienced is such a marvel of guitar wizardry and sonic landscapes that, to this day, no one, and I mean no one, has come close to the mind-blowing sounds that Jimi (with Eddie Kramer) created.

Leo Fender had no idea that his Fender Stratocaster guitar, in the hands of this musical genius, could speak a language heretofore unheard of. For once, any hyperbole was, in reality, insufficient.  Married to a Marshall Amp (turned up to !!) and with a whammy bar, fuzztones and flangers, Jimi created a palette of aural interplanetary imagery.

As a 15 year old guitar player, I didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t blues based; it wasn’t rock as I knew it, either.

It was something else.

Guitar tones came out of my stereo that I just couldn’t fathom.

Yes there were songs with pretty melodies (‘Hey Joe”, “The Wind Cries Mary”). But songs like “Purple Haze”, “Manic Depression”, “Third Stone From The Sun”, “Foxey Lady”, and “Are You Experienced” were like nothing heard before.

This album was the opening salvo that brought the guitar into world and created millions of “air guitarists”.

This was sex with 6 strings.

This was what everything that could be forbidden would sound like if LSD were morphed into 6 metal strings!

Clapton knew it, Jeff Beck knew it, Pete Townshend knew it, Jimmy Page knew it.

This guy just made their lives miserable, and seemingly overnight, irrelevant.

The best story of Jimi’s effect on the entire British music “guitar hero” scene was a conversation between the singer Terry Reid and the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, overheard at the Bag O’ Nails club in London in early 1967. Jimi came and performed with his newly created band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, one night at the behest of Chas Chandler.

John and Paul were there, as were Mick, Keith, and Brian. Y’know, just one of those legendary hip London nights in the mid sixties that we all drool over.

While passing Brian Jones, who was going to the bathroom, Terry said, “be careful that you don’t slip in the puddle near the stage when you go to your seat”. “Why?” asked Jones. “Did someone spill a drink?” “No,” replied Terry, “it’s from all the guitar players crying!”

Because the sounds of the album were so new, I was curious about the effect of LSD on the sessions.  Eddie Kramer told me that, as far as he remembers, acid did not come into Jimi’s world until after the Are You Experienced sessions.

Jack Bruce was asked to play with the Experience after Jimi came over and had jammed with him several times, but passed on it to join Cream— because in the Experience it was all Jimi, whereas with Cream, Jack would be singing lead, and writing nearly all of the material.

I had the opportunity several years ago to ask Jack what the difference was between playing with Eric and Jimi.

His response was among the best answers I have ever received, and when I recently told Eddie Kramer about this conversation, he agreed that it was incredibly perceptive on Jack’s part.

Jack said this to me:

“On any given night Eric was the more precise player, but Jimi was the only guitarist he ever played with that played the guitar like his brain was directly wired to his fretboard!”

That is the highest compliment that any musician can give to another one.

As far as its Psychedelic rating however, the combination of the cover art, the band’s clothing, the fact that a “brand of Owsley-created street LSD was named Purple Haze”, and most importantly, the extraordinary uniqueness of the music contained herein brings this album to a Psychedelic Factor:  9 out of 10

Next issue: Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy Procol Harum’s debut, and Cream’s Disraeli Gears.

Red Sky at Night

Red Sky at Night

Red Sky at Night

Paul McGowan




Bill Leebens

While sight-seeing around the uncommonly-empty campus of the University of Wyoming in Laramie on Thanksgiving weekend, girlfriend Pat and I flipped around the meager offerings on FM radio. Between  strident sermons and the unctuous dreck that passes for “Modern Country”, we heard a familiar voice from beyond the grave: that of Casey Kasem.

Kasem died in 2014 amidst painful-to-hear circumstances. But for decades, his voice was familiar to radio listeners as the voice of American Top 40 and related music-chart countdown shows. The format was almost as old as radio itself, going back to Your Hit Parade, which began its long run in 1935.

Kasem’s on-air persona—and apparently, his off-air persona, as well—was that of a relentlessly-upbeat cheerleader of American pop music. The things he said, such as his usual closing line, “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars”, seemed to come from an earlier, gentler era. Coming from anyone else, such sentiments would have come across as eye-rollingly insincere and cheesy…but somehow Kasem seemed to mean what he said. Even his scratchy baritone, which would have sounded affected and fake coming from someone else, seemed genuine.

The show’s format is familiar to anyone who didn’t grow up in a cave: Kasem would start at #40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 weekly chart, and slowly work his way up to #1, intermixing anecdotes about the songs and artists with the music— and the inevitable weekly long-distance dedication (“Dear Casey: I’m in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. My boyfriend William was sent to Vietnam six months ago, and listens to you on the Armed Forces Radio Network….”). Back in the ’70’s, even sardonic teens like me would listen to the three or four hours of the show in order to hear new, upward-moving songs, and track the rise and fall of favorites. We would cheer or groan, depending on the turns of events, and bemoan the appearance of music we deemed as unworthy.

Speaking of which: the show Pat and I heard was a “Classic AT 40” show from 1977—and #1 was “You Light Up My Life”, probably the most groan-inducing song to ever hit the airwaves. Even amidst such stuff, Kasem came across as appreciative and genuinely interested in the songs he played. America had yet to enter the Age of Irony.

For many years Kasem balanced his DJ and AT 40 worlds with acting gigs, primarily  cartoon voice-overs. The best-known of such characterizations was that of “Shaggy” on Scooby-Doo, a role he portrayed for an amazing 35 years. The idea of  the clean-cut, straight-laced Kasem as the disheveled hippie with the voracious appetite is amusing, and a little disconcerting. That’s the miracle of voice-overs, no? (This video is as painful as watching Ed Sullivan addressing “the youngsters”….)


Hearing Kasem’s voice on that American Top 40 show led us to discuss how pop music had changed in the last 40 years. Having just watched Ron Howard’s Eight Days A Week Beatles documentary the night before, the chart-dominance and omnipresence of the Fabs back in the day was fresh in our minds.

Our conclusion was that like many aspects of popular culture, pop music had become fractured, broken into a million sub-categories so thoroughly that no one artist could or would never again be all things to all people—as the Beatles once were. I know that even back then Billboard  had multiple charts and categories (my older brother Chuck starting buying the mag back around 1965, not an easy feat in small town Minnesota of that era), but the Hot 100 was the chart. Now it’s one of dozens—there are half a dozen different “adult contemporary” lists alone. And what do the lists represent? Airplay? Record sales? Downloads? It’s all very confusing.

In my heart of hearts, I know that the apparently homogeneous music world was somewhat of an illusion, reinforced and perpetuated by a Leave It To Beaver culture. Like the three TV networks of the time, a limited range of material was produced for a fairly limited demographic, and the “specialty” fields were, simply, denied. It truly was take-it-or-leave-it, as there just wasn’t anything else.

And yes, I know that part of this is mythos perpetuated by grumps of a certain age, convinced that what was, is the best that will ever be. To my mind, such nostalgia is the worst kind of fatalism, a denial of the potential of the future.

And yet, and yet: can we point to anything today in the arts that is truly life-changing? That forces one to say, “THAT’S what I want to do with my life?” Plenty of nascent musicians were provoked into a life dedicated to music because of the Beatles or Dylan.

I sure don’t see that these days. But then, I’m a grump of a certain age….




Charles Rodrigues




Roy Hall

“Would you like to see the car?”

Leland and I looked at each other in bewilderment.

“Sure” we said.

Parties at hi fi shows are fun.

They are a way of letting off steam after a day dealing with annoying customers. (If only we didn’t have to deal with customers at all, life would be good.) They are also a great way to network. I have met many manufacturers at parties and have developed quite a few new products over a glass or two of wine or beer.

Scene one.
I am often invited to parties but, surprisingly, sometimes I’m not. I was definitely not invited to the Monster Cable party a few years ago at CES in Las Vegas. I have little interest in Monster Cable. But that year Ray Charles was performing and I really wanted to see him. I had met him a few years prior in a soul food restaurant in NewYork called Chez Josephine. He was sitting at the table next to my wife and me. Although New Yorkers make a point of studiously ignoring celebrities, we couldn’t resist. He was very gracious and not at all bothered by our intrusion.

So how to get invited to the party? We asked everyone we knew. No one had a spare ticket. We even approached people who worked for Monster but with no luck. This was the hottest ticket in town. We decided to go to the event and try to get in. There was tight security and people were lining up to enter. We asked everyone. Nothing. We even approached the VIP line to see if our names were on the list. The guy in charge was not amused.

We gave up. Before leaving, I went to the men’s room. When I emerged, I saw people coming out of a side door of the auditorium to go into the toilet. I couldn’t believe it. Could it be this easy? I did reconnaissance. There was a guard but he seemed disinterested in the comings and goings. I got hold of Leland and we approached the door. The guard ignored us as we confidently walked in.

The place was mobbed. People were starting to sit down at tables when we saw some friends sitting at a table in the front and they invited us to join them. We were fed a pretty good meal and then had to suffer as Noel Lee (President of Monster) gave presentations to the salespeople who had sold the most cable. He droned on, but that’s the price you pay for gatecrashing.

Finally Ray Charles came on stage, and he was wonderful. He played most of his hits and his singing of “Georgia on My Mind” brought me to tears. It was a great evening.

Scene two.
Stereophile magazine used to give the best parties. This is when Larry Archibald was the publisher. He was very generous and made a big point of choosing the wine. Everyone in the industry would attend as the vibe and wine was great. It really was the high point of the show, and I sorely miss these events because they engendered a strong sense of camaraderie in the industry.

One party was in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and was particularly good. On leaving, I passed another party down the hall. There was a band playing Dixieland, and that caught my attention. I entered and walked around. I thought Stereophile parties were lavish, but this one was insane.There were piles of food everywhere, 3 bars, beautiful cocktail waitresses and a very high-tone crowd.

I ordered a drink and sat down to eat. At some point I started conversing with a man sitting nearby. He was very chatty, and told me that the party was celebrating the launch of a new magazine. We had a few drinks together and I told him about my business and why I was in Vegas. I then told him that I had gatecrashed the party because the music was so good. We were getting rather drunk and started talking about the meaning of life etc. when I asked him what he did for the magazine.

“I’m the publisher, and it’s my party.”

Scene three.
A few years ago, my wife, Rita and me visited Heinz and Jozefina Lichtenegger in Vienna. Heinz is an old friend and his company makes turntables for Music Hall. They live in a converted farmhouse about 30 minutes north of Vienna. Jozefina has amazing taste and the house looks like it came out of an Italian design magazine.

They are very generous hosts and one evening they gave us tickets to hear theVienna Philharmonic perform in the Wiener Konzerthaus in the center of the city. Sitting in front of us was Fran Drescher, of The Nanny fame. We didn’t want to impose on her but at some point her husband started chatting to us and she joined in the conversation. She was in town at the behest of former president Bill Clinton and had spoken at the Life Ball, an event that raised awareness and money for AIDS research.

Rita asked Drescher, “What is Bill Clinton like?”

“He is wonderful,” she replied.

“And what do you think of (recently inaugurated) Barack Obama?”

“Oh I really love him”.

Rita (in agreement, referring to the new president) followed with, “I’m such a fan.”

Drescher, in her distinctive nasal Queens, New York twang gratefully came back with, “Thank you so much; I love meeting my fans.”

At the intermission, we decided to go find a bar. We were sitting in the center of the hall and exited through a middle door. The hallway was crowded and we went along with the flow. The crowd led us into a large room where waiters hovered serving champagne and hors d’oeuvres. We were mystified by this but had a few drinks and snacks and waited to see what was going on.

A hush settled on the room and a man started to address the crowd. We discovered that we had stumbled into a party for high-rolling underwriters of the orchestra and according to my wife (who speaks fluent German) the speaker couldn’t thank us enough for our continuing support. No one asked us to leave and so we had a few more drinks and returned to the concert hall.

The Vienna Philharmonic is the best orchestra I have ever heard.

Scene four.
Some years ago, Leland Leard and I exhibited at a Stereophile-sponsored show in the New York Hilton. One evening we went out to dinner with a few clients and on our return, we passed the Hilton Ballroom. There was a long line of people waiting to go in. Everyone was dressed up; black tie and gowns. Although we were very casually dressed, curiosity drove us to the entrance.

I was about to ask the security guard about the event when a beautiful woman in an evening gown beckoned us inside.There was a band playing, and mountains of food everywhere. A waiter offered us glasses of champagne. We were shown around and introduced to all sorts of people.More champagne arrived. As we had been drinking for most of the day, we were quite happy to continue.

At one point our hostess asked us if we would like to meet the cast. “Absolutely”, I said as the mystery deepened. Leland started dancing with a cast member who seemed to be all over him and I sat down with another hostess who appeared to be most interested in my every word. More champagne arrived and at one point our beautiful hostess asked if we would like to see the car.

“Sure”, we said. We were led onstage and had our photos taken in front of a very long, silver vintage car. Above the car was a sign, ‘Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang’. We had gatecrashed the opening night party for the Broadway musical.

We have often wondered about the enthusiastic welcome. Did our casual dress imply that we were big shots in the theater world? We never figured out why they let us in.

Dry vs. Juicy

Dry vs. Juicy

Dry vs. Juicy

Lawrence Schenbeck

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Well, it’s hard to write about a lot of things. Sometimes we have to invent new language, but mostly we make old language learn new tricks—thus the wine-critic words employed by so many writers. Some do it well, others struggle.

So I sympathized with Marc-André Hamelin, a fine pianist, when he tried to describe music he had recently recorded, Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus (Hyperion CDA68048). Here’s how he began:

You are about to enter a world unlike any other. A universe of sound completely unrelated to the narrative, linear musical physiognomies we are all used to. With For Bunita Marcus Feldman has managed to wipe the slate clean and invent a world which has its own laws, which must be dealt with in its own terms.

Okay. Suppose you had never heard this music. Would these words make you eager to experience it? Not necessarily, I’m thinking. His next words were more useful:

It is also a domain of extreme economy of means, both in its radically reduced dynamics and in its uncommon textural sparseness. . . . There are so many dimensions within this seemingly limited material that it is entirely possible for the listener to understand the music in many different ways, and also to be affected by it in different ways.

Good. With that he said something fully accurate and not completely off-putting. I happen to believe For Bunita Marcus is one of the two or three most beautiful solo piano works ever created, in spite of its being (to quote Hamelin again) “a 72-minute stretch of delicate, triple-piano textures with the damper pedal held constantly down.” Delicate indeed: you’ll seldom hear more than one or two notes sounding at any given moment. And those notes usually take their own sweet time.

My advice is, get it right away. Try to ignore what Hamelin and others have said about it. Push “play,” sit down, and be quiet. For Bunita Marcus is not difficult to follow, understand, or enjoy. It simply lays bare the choices every composer has faced since the beginning of time: what do I do first? Then what? And so forth.

You can hear it as a set of continuously developing variations, the sort that Brahms wrote and upon which Schoenberg theorized. You can hear it as a narrative, although that’s not required. In any case you’re unlikely to imagine the adventure story assumed in so many Romantic symphonies.

You might hear something like this, though: made lazy by afternoon sunlight, a cat plays absent-mindedly with a ball of yarn, distracted by motes of dust, or by sounds from another part of the house, or by memories of a mouse he almost caught, once. (Hm. Sounds like the program for L’après-midi d’un faune.) Here’s another scenario: you’re alone, outside, on a neighborhood basketball court. It’s a cool fall day. You shoot baskets. Some go in, some don’t. A car goes by.

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Hamelin recommends that you listen “at a much lower level than usual.” Feel free to ignore that too. In summary: dry, but subtly savory. (The piano is well recorded.)

Now for the juicy part. Really, is there anything juicier than Morten Lindberg’s productions for 2L? It almost doesn’t matter what he takes on. You know it’s going to sound delicious. Here we have Interactions (2L-137-SABD; Blu-ray Pure Audio + SACD), three works for violin and piano recorded in the Sofienberg Church, Norway, a typical high-ceilinged Lindberg haunt, full of old wood, old stone, old plaster, and, for this recording, various utterly-new technologies.

You’ll never hear solo violin (here a 1906 Enrico Rocca) this juicy anywhere else. It’s solid, present, fully hydrated. Even in the most robust passages, the piano doesn’t swamp it; that’s an implicit tribute to Lindberg and recording technician Beatrice Johannessen. They’re not merely competent, they’re alchemists.

Of course, it does matter what is being recorded. Violinist Bård Monsen and pianist Gunnar Flagstad lead off with an early sonata by Fartein Valen (1887–1952), pioneering Norwegian composer who, after a period of considerable struggle, overcame the prevailing romantic nationalism of the day. It’s very much his own music, but what music! I once worked with a student who—mostly at the urging of her piano teacher—wrote her senior thesis on one of Valen’s piano sonatas. So I thought I knew Valen, but that scarcely prepared me for the passionate, tender, brash, stormy, powerful, sweet, achingly sincere music that spills out here, expertly channeled by Monsen and Flagstad. Wow.

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Double wow for their treatment of Igor Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante, a 1931 one-off written for violinist Samuel Dushkin so that he and Stravinsky could fill out a duo-recital program. The music is stuffed with neoclassical rhythmic verve—a Stravinsky fingerprint—but seasoned with just enough lyricism to soften its rigor. With the Duo Concertante, as with Valen’s sonata, achieving proper balance between violin and piano can be difficult. The first movement, for example, contains long passages in which the violinist must project sustained double-stops against the pianist’s hyperactive, staccato figuration. Which is “accompaniment” and which “melody”? Each is important, each must contribute to the texture. Listen:

00:00 / 01:19

Responsibility for good balance falls largely on the musicians, but they need great engineers to capture their effort. The 2L team handle it without a hitch. Interactions closes with Witold Lutosławski’s Partita for Violin and Piano, written in 1984 for Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug. In Monsen’s and Flagstad’s hands it becomes a perfect way to round out the collection. Like the Valen and Stravinsky works, it gets a fully juicy rendition from everyone involved. In fact, this bottle truly balances the crisp with the buttery, but in a good way. It’s bright, yet opulent; you can drink it today or cellar it for a few years.

Heh heh. Hope you’ll give the actual music a try. Words may fail you.

Arnie Nudell: RIP

Arnie Nudell: RIP

Arnie Nudell: RIP

Bill Leebens

At the very beginning of 2017, I  wrote about the passing of friend and colleague Ken Furst . I’d hoped to get through the rest of the year without having to write about another death, but sadly, that was not to be. Audio industry legend Arnie Nudell was laid to rest on the Monday before Thanksgiving, having succumbed to complications of pneumonia. He was 80.

Back in the mid-’60s, Arnie was a music-loving laser physicist at Litton Industries, working on exotica like guidance systems for fighter jets. He began building speakers in his garage with fellow Litton employee John Ulrick; Cary Christie was an expert woodworker later added as a partner. Their first project— which became a product when a local audio dealer began to sell them—was dubbed the Servo-Statik 1, based upon its combination of a servo-controlled woofer and electrostatic mids/tweeters (to the best of my knowledge, the servo-bass system was the first such application of the technology in a consumer product since Stan White’s servo-controlled speakers in the ’50s, which I wrote about in Copper #13). A business entity was founded in 1968, and was dubbed Infinity Systems.

I first learned of Arnie when I was 14 or 15, courtesy of High Fidelity magazine’s review of the Servo-Statik 1. That particular review can be found here, but you’ll have to scroll through to page 70. While you’re at it, look at all the speaker ads—and see that in comparison, the Servo-Statik looked like something from Mars.  J. Gordon Holt’s exasperated/awed review for Stereophile is a bit easier to access, here. In Holt’s experience, the Servo-Statik delivered unmatched performance—when it was working.

To teenage me, in a world populated by bookshelf speakers like the ubiquitous and boring AR-4xa, the Servo-Statik seemed outrageous and exotic. Reading about it provided the same exhilaration as did reading about Dan Gurney and Brock Yates’ record-setting Cannonball Run drive in a Ferrari Daytona, which took place in about the same period.

The Servo-Statik gave notice that Infinity was a company devoted to pushing the state of the art in audio. In the years that followed, a number of products were launched that featured cutting-edge technology, and not just in speakers. The FET Preamp, John Ulrick’s SWAMP (SWitching AMP, the first consumer Class-D amp), and the air-bearing turntable (designed by Bruce Thigpen, who would later found Eminent Technology) were all well ahead of their time—verified by the limited numbers in which all were built. Later on, the Black Widow tonearm was an early commercial use of carbon fiber, and the Monolumia Laser provided an in-home light show—-allied with a high failure rate (“I wish we’d never made that damn thing,” Arnie said when I asked about it). A variety of Infinity products can be seen here.

But speakers were Arnie’s passion and the primary focus of the company. Just as the Servo-Statik was never intended to be offered for sale, neither was the ironically-named IRS (Infinity Reference Standard), a massive tour de force designed just to explore what was possible in a loudspeaker system. Made famous by Harry Pearson in The Absolute Sound, the IRS was offered for sale in the early ’70’s and evolved through four versions, the ultimate being the IRS V (there was no IRS IV). Two towers per side, 12 woofers, 24 EMIM (Electro-Magnetic Induction Midrange) planar magnetic drivers, 72 EMIT (EMI Tweeters), 1500 pounds, the IRS V was made from 1987 to 1996, selling for $60,000 in 1996. 58 pair were made. The service manual can be seen here. 

In The Absolute Sound’s 2010 list of “The 12 Most Significant Loudspeakers of All Time”, the IRS V was #8, memorialized by Harry Pearson as “A dream realized and a dream for this listener.” The IRS was the biggest and baddest Infinity speaker, but technological innovation could be seen in dozens of models which utilized servo-woofers, polymer and graphite-fiber cones, Walsh tweeters, the previously-mentioned ‘stats and planar magnetics, and much more. The company truly brought cutting-edge tech to the masses.

As usual, things changed. At one point Infinity was the largest loudspeaker manufacturer in the world, and the company was bought by Harman International. Arnie spent more time managing than designing, and eventually, he and the equally strong-willed Sidney Harman didn’t see eye to eye. Exit Arnie.

With a little push from Harry Pearson, Arnie and Paul McGowan formed Genesis in Vail, Colorado. McGowan had sold PS Audio, and from 1990 to 1997, the two developed loudspeakers with advanced technology, great sound…and questionable aesthetics. Eventually, the Genesis 1 wasdeveloped, updating the technology and performance of the IRS while preserving its aesthetic.

McGowan bought back PS Audio in 1998, and Arnie sold Genesis to Gary Koh in 2002.  Arnie worked with Koh for a few years, and retired to pursue some fundamental studies in physics, and as always, design new speakers.

Arnie once again became involved with McGowan near the end of 2013, helping to voice some new PS products, an alliance which continued until Arnie’s death.

I met Arnie for the first time in October, 2014, as he and Paul set up a pair of Infinity IRS Betas for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I was fascinated to watch the two work together, making seemingly inconsequential adjustments which eventually resulted in an astounding soundstage and amazing dynamics from a pair of 30-year-old speakers. As they worked, the two sniped at each other, joined by longtime colleague Bascom King, who had designed electronics for Infinity decades before. It was clearly a group of old friends.

I was initially a little intimidated by Arnie, but found him open, personable, more than willing to answer a zillion questions from me. My favorite moment of the show came while chatting with Stereophile reviewer Herb Reichert outside the exhibit room before he went in to talk with Paul, Arnie, and Bascom. Herb said, “I feel like a Yankee fan about to meet Derek Jeter.”

Like sports fans, we audio geeks do have heroes—and Arnie Nudell was a hero to many of us. I learned from him every time I saw him, and in spite of his vast experience and knowledge, he always treated me as an equal. I’m sorry I didn’t know him better.

Arnie with Infinity partner Cary Christie.

Paul McGowan interviewed Arnie within the last year, and the audio can be heard here. A website, www.arnienudell.com,  will be set up detailing Arnie’s accomplishments and legacy.

[Apologies for the shaky header pic, but it commemorates that RMAF appearance in 2014. You can see the IRS Betas in the background, behind Paul, Arnie, Bascom, and tonearm guru Frank Schröder.]