Issue 56

Issue 56

Issue 56


Welcome to Copper #56!

With the recent Montréal Audio Fest, the western hemisphere's spring show season is officially underway. Our resident Montréalais Richard Murison took a look around the show, and his report is here. Soon after you read this, Axpona will be underway in suburban Chicago, and we'll be there to bring you the sights.

Our resident LA musician, Dan Schwartz, had a lengthy conversation with concert promoter/raconteur Rikki Farr, known for being an early promoter of the Beatles and for his association with the Isle of Wight festival. The first of three installments is here. I think you'll really enjoy this.

Galen Gareis concludes his two-parter on speaker cable design, here. Thanks to Galen for all his efforts with the extensive cable series. It's a tough subject, for a tough audience!

Our regulars offer a lot of enjoyable reading this issue. Larry Schenbeck concludes his second two-parter (confusing, no?), Violin +Orchestra; Dan Schwartz tells us about the sound of microphones; Richard Murison goes from the specific to the general, with a look at Hi-Fi Shows; Roy Hall's 20th column, "Mykonos", appears in this issue. In classic Hall style, the story includes a far-away place, alcohol, deception, and nudity. I'm truly glad I was able to cajole you into writing, Roy! Anne E. Johnson brings us indie artist Michelle Zauner ; Industry News looks at debt, and a number of companies that have been killed by it; and I look at the messy topics of ergonomics and that damned past. Anne also brings us Something Old/Something New, featuring  recent recordings of the Schubert masterpiece, Winterreise.

Copper #56 concludes with a classic twisted cartoon by Charles Rodrigues, and a beautiful Parting Shot from Paul McGowan.

Woody Woodward and Jay Jay French will both return next issue.

Thanks for reading, and see you at Axpona! (BTW: PS Audio will have food and refreshments in the Journey/Creation room....)

Cheers, Leebs.

The Sound of Microphones

Dan Schwartz

Specifically, Neumann LDCs, or Large Diaphragm Condensers.

You know how they sound. Everybody knows how they sound. They’re the most ubiquitous recording mics there are. But just in case:

You know those glorious RCA Living Stereo recordings? Mostly Neumann U-47s and M-49s. You know those guys The Beatles? Neumann U-48s were their vocal mics.

We’ve grown to love the sound of these mics over the early years of recording — so much so that we think that’s how things actually sound.  But of course they don’t. They’re “realer than real”. I’ve actually come to think of them as approximating how we wished things sound.

Many years ago, I had an email conversation with the great recording engineer Tony Faulkner, who bought many of the Neumanns from RCA when they stupidly sold them off. I recall him telling me that he favored M-49s and M-50s, although he bought one of RCAs U-47s. He had many occasions in which he put it on a soloist, only to have them fall in love with “their sound” afterwards. The quotation marks aren’t there just because that’s how Tony put it; they also signify his enjoyment of the musician falling in love with the tone of themselves as heard through the ultra-romantic U-47.

The M-49 is considerably closer to reality than the U-47, but both enjoy a highly “enhanced” upper-midrange. And when used as a vocal mic, or for example close-micing a ‘cello, you can get quite a beautiful sounding proximity effect from them (this is a bump in the lower-end sound of a microphone, resulting from being near a source) — think Sinatra. Do you think he sounded like that? It’s a bit (well, a lot) like lenses and photography. But when we can see something looking different than we know it to be, it’s obvious.

The first mics I bought were a pair of Tim de Paravacini’s The Mic[1]. (These were called Darth Vader’s Razors at Bill Bottrell’s studio.) Tim designed them around the Pearl (nee Milab) dual-rectangular capsule. The capsule was intended to move the resonant frequencies up out of the upper-mids and to the high frequencies. Coupled with Tim’s hand-wound transformer (as big as your fist), you have a formidable mic. As the opportunities came along, I bought some old Neumanns and a couple of AKGs. One of these AKGs, an early 70s C-24 (a 2-channel mic), went to Tim for him to do his treatment on. An AKG is generally a brighter mic than a Neumann. Originally the C-24 had a single tube inset into a circuit board and an inadequate transformer. What Tim did was to remove the 6072 tube, reduce the size of the circuit board, and fly two miniature AC701 tubes off the sides of the board, opening up a lot of real estate in the mic for one of his real transformers. The effect was to add an at least an octave on the bottom end and to smooth out the top end. It’s still ultra-real sounding, as in a bit too real, but not as “hyper” as before. David Bock [interviewed in Copper #10-–scroll to page 8–-Ed.] has called my C-24 “the best sounding mic in LA”.

At some point in the last twenty-years, I introduced David Bock to George Cardas, and together they cooked up a variation of Tim’s mics — the Bock 5Zero7. What this has, unlike David’s more typical round-capsuled mics, is an oblong capsule, essentially doing Tim’s rectangular capsule one better. I plan on getting a pair. Don’t know if I’ll have any call to use them, but they should be had.

[1] Along with his unbelievable 824M microphone amplifier and his one-inch 2-track recorder — the most outrageously beautiful analog sound there is.




Roy Hall

“Aren’t you Morag and Elspeth from Arbroath?”

The flight to Greece was uneventful but cramped. In the early eighties my wife Rita and I had little money but we wanted to have an exotic holiday, and found a really cheap charter flight to Athens. We arrived in the a.m. and found a squalid hotel in the Plaka and did the usual tourist rounds, the Acropolis, the Temple of Hephaestus, Syntagma Square etc. The highlight for us was going to a performance of Lysistrata in the amphitheater directly below the Acropolis. The play is about women withholding sexual pleasure from their men in order to end the Peloponnesian wars. They seize control of the Acropolis to get their men’s attention. Eventually, after a lot of confrontations and sexual innuendo, the men agree to peace talks and the play ends on a happy note. The play was in Greek but the spectacle and the enthusiasm of the audience towards the well-known actors made the evening memorable.

We weren’t really interested in staying in a big polluted city, so we decided to take a ferry to Mykonos in the Aegean Sea. On arrival at the dock, a phalanx of women dressed in black met us. They were touting rooms in their houses to rent. We found one for around $5 a night (Greece was cheap in those days) and settled in. The room was simple and clean with a bathroom nearby. A few of the rooms were filled by other guests and next door lived a French couple that seemed to spend all their time making love. Every evening we were greeted by the nonstop mantra of, “Oh Jacques, oh Jacques, oh, Jacques…” bleeding through the thin walls.

Breakfast was Greek yogurt with local peaches and honey; lunch was a gyro sandwich or salad at one of the many stalls on the various beaches. In the evening we would go for drinks at the Sundown Bar. There they served grilled octopus that had been caught live, then beaten on the rocks for tenderizing, then hung out all day in the sun. It was delicious, and complemented the local wines. The bar consisted of a few tables set on the edge of the water. Haunting Greek music was played as we watched the sun sink behind the island of Delos. Once the sun had set, the bar closed and we would saunter to one of the outdoor restaurants for a delicious yet remarkably inexpensive meal of grilled fish, lamb or pork.

During the day we would visit the many beaches around the island. Our favorite was Super Paradise. It was a fully nude beach populated mainly by gay men but with a good representation of heterosexuals. I have no problem with nude beaches, after all, I don’t have to look at myself. One thing I have noticed about these beaches is that most people do not look good naked.

There is something magical about the Greek islands. A combination of light, colors, and heat cast such a spell that after a few days there, time disappears and anxiety fades. The trip to Super Paradise was by fishing boat. In the morning we would amble down to the port and sit in one of the boats. When enough people had arrived, the pilot cast off for the beach. In those days the beach had a small tavern, a toilet, and some shady areas. The beach, surrounded by high cliffs had emerald green water and white sand, and was a perfect place for sunbathing and chilling out.

One day, instead of taking the boat we decided to rent a small motorbike and go by land. I had driven a motorbike before but never with a passenger on it. After a while I got the feel of it and we headed off to Paradise. On arrival there was a very steep dirt path down to the beach. Going down was easy if a bit hairy. On the way back up, the motorbike skidded and crashed into a wall. Blood was pouring down my face, and my knee had a big gash in it. Fortunately my wife was uninjured. By pure luck, a van passed by and upon seeing us, the driver helped me inside and immediately drove us to the local doctor’s house. I was tended to right away. The doctor was Greek but had recently returned to Greece after 30 years practicing in New Jersey. In no time he stitched me up and sent me off. After a day or so of recuperating and listening to numerous sessions of, “Oh, Jacques” I felt well enough to venture out with a cane. If ever anyone searched for the perfect place to convalesce, they need look no further than Mykonos. The next day we returned to Super Paradise.

One morning while melting in the sunshine, two young women in bikinis approached and lay adjacent to us. By their crystal-clear accents and lilting speech I realized they were Scottish and probably from somewhere in the northeast. In their exchange I learnt that their names were Elspeth and Morag and they came from Arbroath. Unaware that I was within earshot they proceeded with their conversation:

“Should we take our tops off?” said one.

“I’m not sure,” said the other.

I think we should. It is a nude beach after all.”

“Ok,” said the other, and the tops came off.

A short while later one said to the other, “What about our bottoms?”

“I don’t know,” was the reply.

“But isn’t that why we came to a nude beach in the first place?”

“Yes but what if someone we knew saw us?”

“That’s impossible, we’re thousands of miles away from home. No one will ever know. Lets do it.”

Carefully the bottoms were removed and the two of them lay there stark naked.

I stood, walked over to them and said in a strong Scottish accent, “Aren’t you Morag and Elspeth from Arbroath?”

The two women shrieked, grabbed their clothes, and fled.

Hi-Fi Shows

Richard Murison

I was tasked by Editor Leebs to cover my local high-end audio show, whose formal name is “Salon Audio Montréal Audio Fest”, a name only a mother could love.  The show has just ended, and you’ll find my take on it elsewhere in this issue.  But in the meantime, the task of writing that report has prompted me to contemplate my long and varied history with audio shows.

Like most readers of Copper, that history began as an ordinary man-in-the-street consumer.  OK, so some of you are women-in-the-street, while today’s sensibilities require that we also recognize LGBTQs-in-the-street.  FWIW, all were in evidence at this year’s “Salon Audio Montréal Audio Fest”, which wouldn’t normally merit a mention except to observe that it wouldn’t have been the case not so many years ago, when the audience would have been something like 90% old men and 9% less-old men.  Meanwhile, as a less-welcome sign of progress, I find myself having transitioned inexorably from the less-old group to the plain-old group.

More recently, I have been attending this and other shows as an exhibitor, either in our own BitPerfect room, or helping out in another manufacturer’s or dealer’s room.  Now, finally, I find myself pen-in-hand, with a photographer in tow (my son), missing only a natty fedora with a press card stuck jauntily in the hat band.  And at the end of it all, the thought struck home quite forcefully that one’s approach to an audio show is significantly different, depending on which hat you’re wearing.  I had expected that attending the show as a reporter would be no different from attending as a consumer … I’d just have to write it up afterwards.  But it’s not so simple, and it seemed to me that my thoughts on that warranted a Copper column all of its own.

With my Joe Consumer hat on, prowling the show used to be quite easy.  If you liked the sound in a particular room, you’d stay awhile, and just enjoy the music.  Maybe you’d ask the room’s host to play something more to your taste.  And if you didn’t like the sound … well, you’d just mosey on over to the next room.

But now, all of a sudden, I find that I’m Clark Kent, the earnest young cub reporter, and, much to my disappointment, we no longer have phone booths in 2018 from which to emerge and heroically fix a crappy sound.  Did you ever notice that Clark Kent never actually wrote any normal everyday man-bites-dog stories?  No, whenever he needed to make like a journalist he’d just pop into a phone booth, and all of a sudden Superman shows up and saves the planet with yet another hold-the-front-page tale of derring-do.  But this isn’t happening for me.  I’m in a room where a seriously expensive system is delivering a sound that just isn’t getting my mojo going.  I’m supposed to write about it, and I’m not sure what to do.  Maybe I’ll just mosey on along.  Where’s that dratted phone box when you really need it?

Let’s talk a bit about the music.  Back in my good old Joe Consumer days I don’t suppose I ever gave a thought about what music was being played.  Mostly it all sounded so much better than my own system that I was happy just to sit back and listen, and fantasize about winning the lottery.  Back in the day, if you were really keen you would bring your own plastic bag of LPs, or ones you just bought at the show and were dying to hear.  As LP gave way to CD, you would bring your own bag of CDs.  And since you could fit a lot more CDs in a bag than LPs, people would turn up to an audio show lugging half their entire music collections with them.  Bottom line is, if you didn’t like what was playing you could ask them to play something more to your taste.  And mostly they would oblige.

Then, in 2012, CD players vanished from audio shows as though they’d been outed as Bill Cosby fans. Every room was powered by a computer audio source.  And if you were smart, and sufficiently au courant, you could bring your tracks of choice on a USB memory stick.  So you still didn’t care much what was being played.  And last year we went so far as to bring a Mac Laptop containing a substantial music library, our own software to play it, and an audiophile-grade USB cable to connect it straight to the system’s DAC!  One way or another, we had the option to audition equipment using our own music.

This year’s Montreal Audio Fest surprised the hell out of me.  Just about everybody was using a turntable as their audio source of choice.  It’s like when the gas station at the corner of the street puts their price up.  Before you know what’s hit you, every gas station within 20 miles has put their own price up.  That’s what apparently happened here.  A stone tablet fell from a mountaintop someplace, bearing the commandment thou shalt source thine demo with a turntable.  And so it was.  High-end – even ultra-high-end – turntables were absolutely everywhere.  Consequently, since nobody has come to an audio show with a bag full of LPs in over 30 years, it became all but impossible to get your own music played.  A few hopefuls could be seen toting CDs or memory sticks, and in most rooms they’d be mostly out of luck.  But even so, if the show’s apparent overriding message, that a vinyl resurgence is the happening thing, how come nobody had brought more than a milk-crate’s worth of LPs as their source material for the entire show?

So, for the duration of the show, we were treated to girl-with-guitar music and intimate, small-combo, jazz, all on vinyl.  It was a perfect storm.  There I was, having to listen carefully to everything I heard with a view to presenting an informed critique.  But the music being played just didn’t allow me to get a decent handle on the overall capabilities of the systems.  And there wasn’t much in the way of options to hear different selections of music.  Hearing nothing but audiophile-approved dross in room after room, with very little in the way of respite, is rather soul-destroying, regardless of how good the equipment is.

The problem is really quite a simple one.  Manufacturers want to demonstrate their systems in the best possible light.  A warts-and-all approach doesn’t interest them.  They want you to hear the things their products do well, and not the things they don’t.  And frankly, bottom line, it’s hard to fuck up Shelby Lynne.  So you’re going to hear your fill of Shelby Lynne (a term I use in a generic sense to cover the whole “audiophile voices” repertoire), all day long.  But who can blame them?  I imagine if there was a school for selling audio equipment, that would be lesson one on day one.  There were photocopies of the classic Charles Rodrigues cartoons, familiar to Copper readers, taped to the walls up and down the hallways, and I’m sure one of them somewhere must have lampooned this very issue. [Checking…and unlike those content-thieves, we pay for the right to reprint them!—Ed.]

I believe in a different philosophy.  Whenever BitPerfect exhibits at a trade show we have a diametrically different approach.  We want people to hear what the music they normally listen to sounds like.  I don’t want them listening only to what I want them to hear.  So I play both good recordings and bad recordings.  But always recordings that someone in the room – even if that someone is only me – likes to play for their own listening pleasure.  We are a digital audio company, so all of our music lives on a NAS, and it is relatively trivial to bring the NAS to the show and use it to power the system.  I have about 40,000 tracks on it, and so there is a pretty good chance there’s something in there for everyone.  My goal – one I sadly cannot come close to fulfilling – is always to try to ask every person who comes into the room “what can I play for you?” and whatever that is, I’ll do my darnedest to play it.

For example, I have 10,000 Days by Tool.  Why?  Because somebody went to the trouble of bringing it to the show because he wanted to hear it played on a $50,000 system.  It took 3 minutes to rip it to my NAS so we could play his track of choice.  It’s still there, although I don’t believe I’ve played it since.  I think that kid was happy, even if the room cleared pretty quickly.  Then, later, we had quite a crowd who sat through Leonard Bernstein’s legendary 1959 recording of The Rite Of Spring (we just played Part II).  It may not be the world’s finest recording, but it is arguably one of the world’s finest recorded performances, and our amazing system had the audience transfixed for a short while.  Then there was the time I played a track of Bowser and Blue, a politically incorrect Anglophone comedy act from Quebec, to a staunchly francophone audience, threatening to provoke a re-enactment of the Richard Riot (Google it), but in the end most of them stayed and listened.  And laughed along.  It sounds like it was recorded on a Walkman.  And at the end of the day, here in Montreal if you want to fill your room to the rafters, all you have to do is play Crime Of The Century.  Loud.  Works without fail, every time.  Yet nobody seemed to have it in their milk-crate of LPs.

So the talking point is this.  What is your objective, as an exhibitor, having paid out upwards of $2,000 for the privilege of exhibiting at a high-end audio show?  Do you want to play the role of the cynical salesman (I use the term salesman pointedly, since saleswomen are seldom cynical), and only let your audience hear what you want them to hear?  Or do you want to work with audience, find out what it is they want from a system, and show them how well your product can deliver that?  Put me in the latter camp.

And then you need to add the reporter to the mix.  The reporter will sit down as you cue up your own implementation of the Shelby Lynne playlist, and you’ll know that, deep inside, another part of him just died.  Even if your system really is well and truly awesome.

Michelle Zauner

Anne E. Johnson

Michelle Zauner’s domain name uses neither a dot-com nor a dot-net. It has a dot-rocks. Seriously, her website is JapaneseBreakfast.Rocks. And if you click on the tab labeled “Quest,” you enter a custom-made role-playing game designed around characters from her songs. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Zauner, a singer-songwriter and the true identity of Japanese Breakfast, is the coolest cat in the room.

It’s not that she’s has a powerhouse voice. And wow, she sure does mumble sometimes when she sings. But once you get used to her manner, you can appreciate her devotion to songwriting and her ability to share her view of life through her compositions. Then there’s that smirk — on her face, in her voice, and in her lyrics – that gives Zauner an air of wisdom beyond her years.

She’s also one of the most determined touring artists I’ve ever seen. Her gigs calendar shows her booked almost daily for the next few months, playing clubs and festivals all over the US, UK, and Europe. With that schedule, she rarely goes home, but when she does, that home is in Eugene, Ore., where she grew up.

For a few years she escaped the Pacific Northwest for Philadelphia, where she settled in as singer/songwriter/guitarist with a quartet called Little Big League. Despite their standard rock band format (singer, two guitars, bass, drums), Little Big League stretched outside the standard sound and into a kind of faux electronica, with Ian Dykstra playing percussion in an emotionally distant, metronome-like way, and the guitars pulling and bending long notes like synthesizers.

This genre isn’t called dreampop for nothing. The otherworldliness of “Take It to a Weird Sad Place,” from the album Tropical Jinx (2014), is a good example of Zauner’s singing: breathiness, a touch of vocal fry, and diction that she might use for talking to herself. It’s effective, though, especially when combined with those floating guitar lines.


The punk tune “Sucker” shows Little Big League’s other side, with a blend of anger and dark humor and a raging sound. The woman in the song is trapped in her marriage and trapped in her house: “I’m a dog, I’m a wife, I’m a dog, I’m nothing, and this calls for some drugs.” Zauner and her guitar know how to scream when they need to.


If fate had taken a different turn, Zauner would probably have stayed in Philly with Little Big League. But when her mother became ill with cancer, she felt she needed to move back to Eugene. And so, longing for an artistic release despite not having a band anymore, she created Japanese Breakfast. It’s less a band than a persona, and it seems to suit Zauner well, as a nod to East Asian pop styles both in sound and presentation.

Unlike some solo acts in this age when there’s a recording studio on everybody’s phone, Zauner has not gone full introvert. She relies on fellow human musicians, not just layers of herself or synth samples, on the Japanese Breakfast albums and in live shows. The first album, Psychopomp (2016), uses five collaborators on guitar, keyboard, clarinet, drums, and strings. The album’s name comes from the Greek mythological concept of a guide who leads the souls of the living to the land of the dead.

Given the situation in her family life, the grim mindset is not surprising. And Zauner already had a tendency toward seeing the world through gray-colored glasses even before her mother’s illness. In the song “Heft,” the musical tone is different from anything by Little Big League, more straight-up rock. The lyrics are about how depression never seems to go away for good, repeating the line “What if it’s the same dark coming?”


As Japanese Breakfast, Zauner has intensified her exploration of the dreampop landscape. “Moon on the Bath” has no lyrics; it’s 89 seconds of thoughtful electronic exploration that would have intrigued Edgard Varèse:


The second and most recent studio album under the Japanese Breakfast name is Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017). Zauner has said in interviews that a line from the song “Till Death,” inspired by her mother’s passing, gives some context to the whole album. It explains what she was going through when she wrote it: “Insomnia, haunted dreams, stages of grief, repressed memories, anger, and bargaining.” “Till Death” points out how unfair it all seems: “All these celebrities keep dying / while cruel men continue to live.”


But don’t expect the album to be an endless philosophical slog seeking the meaning of life; that’s not Zauner’s style. There’s also more standard pop subject matter. “Boyish,” originally recorded by Little Big League, gets a splashy makeover on Soft Sounds from Another Planet. (Zauner has a history of re-recording her songs; and why not? Classical and jazz musicians make multiple recordings of the same pieces as a matter of course.) This heartbreak song, in a lonesome style that manages to simultaneously evoke Roy Orbison and Radiohead, is especially notable for Zauner’s crying guitar riffs:


The song “Machinist” led to the alien robot character in the game on Zauner’s website, and the song’s manga-inspired music video and its electro-pop sound also urge the listener to hear a science fiction element in this track. But the lyrics deal with an unresponsive lover, using a robot as a metaphor: “Heart burning hot enough for the both of us / I never realized how much you were holding back / All the times I felt so plugged in / You were tuning out.”


Sometimes life hands us all pain and loss, and it rips us out of the places we’d prefer to be. Good for Michelle Zauner for making the most of a tough situation and letting it fuel her creativity.

Schubert's Winterreise

Anne E. Johnson

When Franz Schubert first played his song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) for a few friends in 1828, they were amazed by how dark and grim it was, with most of the songs in minor keys. The text was a set of introspective poems by Wilhelm Müller imagining someone returning to a place where he had fallen in love and had his heart broken long ago. Fortunately, musicians and audiences have come to love the cold beauty and deep sadness of this work, as is obvious from the many new recordings of it released just in the past year.

The most satisfying of the recent recordings is the Harmonia Mundi pairing of tenor Mark Padmore and keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout. I say “keyboardist” even though Bezuidenhout is playing modern piano on this album because his background as an early music specialist on harpsichord and fortepiano informs his playing here.

For example, on “Gefrorne Tränen,” Bezuidenhout’s detached notes (which he manages even while pressing the sustain pedal!) perfectly replicate the distinct sounds the title’s “Frozen Tears” might make as they plop into the snow from the jilted lover’s cheek. By 1828, the modern piano was spreading in Europe, thanks to Parisian developments in the instrument. Still, fortepianos remained more common at the time, and historically informed performance tends to favor fortepiano for these salon-style works by Schubert. Bezuidenhout doubtless has this in mind even as he tickles his Steinway.

No tracks from this album are available on YouTube, but you can hear the complete recording on Spotify:

Padmore gives an understated performance. In these days when an intensely emotional interpretation of this cycle is coming into vogue (see mention of Ian Bostridge below), there’s a good argument for introspection in these poems that are really just internal monologues of a guy wandering around on a winter’s day. That said, Padmore can conjure up some fire when the text demands it, as he does in “Der stürmische Morgen” (The Stormy Morning).

Another top-notch Winterreise to come out lately is by baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Roger Vignoles on the Hypérion label. Sorry to say, there is no free (legal) way to share any tracks here; if you’re an Apple Music subscriber, you’re in luck. All I can offer is this “mini-teaser” on YouTube:


Even that little taste shows the delicate, intricate phrasing of both singer and pianist. Boesch has remarkable control of his sound at very low volume, a skill that serves him well in these introspective pieces. “Frühlingstraum” (Spring Dream) is so beautiful that it’s almost painful, and hearing this recording reminded me all over again why Schubert is one of the greatest melodists who ever lived.

The internet age has changed the whole concept of making and releasing a recording. Yes, there are still record companies and professional studios and industry contracts. But there are also unaffiliated musicians with a dream, some recording equipment, and a little tech and social media know-how, able to release their own recordings under their own steam. Schubert’s Winterreise recently received such treatment via YouTube.

Tenor Robert Petillo and pianist Todd Fickley recorded the song cycle in a performance at the Eliot Society in College Park, MD. Considering how live the hall’s acoustics are, they managed to make a decent sound recording. Petillo has an agile and pleasing voice, and Fickley provides strong rhythmic support.

What makes this recording special is the way it was released. The entire cycle was put on YouTube, each song with its own video featuring a still image, a watercolor winter scene by artist Betsy Marsch. It’s suitably meditative to stare at her artwork as you listen, and the English subtitles are a helpful touch. Here’s the opening song, “Gute Nacht” (Good Night):


Is it one of the great Winterreise recordings of all time? No, but it’s a solid performance, and I admire the musical democracy – the evened-out playing field, if you like – its release represents.

Of course, people sing Winterreise in concert all the time. The live version that has received the most attention in recent seasons is The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise. This experimental theater piece is a re-composition (my stomach knots up when I write that word) of Schubert’s song cycle, with the piano part reconstituted for orchestra and exotic percussion, the songs edited down, and an ornate staging by Netia Jones. Here’s a peek:


When tenor Ian Bostridge (whose interpretations of the original voice/piano Winterreise are always breathtaking) toured this version in 2017, critics seemed moved by his performance but somewhat baffled by the presentation as a whole. They wondered: why create a version of Schubert’s vocal masterpiece that changes the original score?

I would ask the same question about the Winterreise, released in 2017 on Coviello Records, by conductor/composer Gregor Meyer, who adds a newly created choral score and edits the piano part. I mean, seriously, why did the world need this? This recording is not on Spotify or YouTube, but you can hear the complete tracks of “Lindenbaum” and “Einsamkeit” (Loneliness) at this link.

German baritone Daniel Ochoa gives a convincing performance. His voice is rich, if sometimes a little wobbly, and he maintains the thread of melancholy that most performers pull through this truly melancholic song cycle (Bostridge, with his fits of fury and madness, being an exception). But Meyer’s new version does not help Ochoa convey the text. Take “Lindenbaum” (Linden Tree), for example.

Cristian Peix plays the piano introduction to “Lindenbaum” in the usual Schubertian way, full of energy and motion (remember, this is the composer who loved programmatic accompaniment so much that he used a piano to represent the irregular turns of a spinning wheel in the Faust-inspired “Gretchen am Spinnrad”!). Here the piano phrases swirl like gusts of wind through the linden tree’s branches. So, it starts off as it should.

Then the voice comes in. In Schubert’s original score, the piano slows down at this point, moving chord by chord in the same rhythm as the notes of the melody; this gives the voice a kind of percussive determination. Apparently Meyer decided that the doubling of the vocal line in the piano was nothing more than redundancy, so he stops the piano part when the voice comes in. And he has his choir, the Vocalconsort Leipzig, create a velvet backdrop for the solo voice by sustaining the syllable—I wish I were making this up—“Oooh.”

Hey, I get that the choir sounds pretty. But “pretty” is not an intelligent musical reason. What does Meyer think Schubert missed that the choir adds? That’s an especially important question when you consider how reducing the carefully textured piano part and replacing it with shapeless choir vocalise changes the whole color of the song.

To my mind, Winterreise is one of the most perfect pieces of music ever written. Don’t mess with it. But, by all means, keep singing it. There’s no such thing as too many recordings. I’ll be happy to listen to all of them.

Show Report: Montréal Audio Fest

Show Report: Montréal Audio Fest

Show Report: Montréal Audio Fest

Richard Murison

When Editor Leebs asked me to do a show report for the Montréal Audio Fest, I thought nothing of it. I’ll be going anyway, so why not just take some notes and write them up for Copper. Sounds easy enough, until you sit down in front of your first bum system. What the heck do I write about this? It’s one thing to think, This is pretty crappy, to yourself, another entirely to commit it to print for posterity.

But I’ve been an exhibitor myself at this show. These rooms are absolutely not the easiest ones to set up properly. In fact, it can be a real nightmare. Believe me, I’ve been through it. And some of them are just way too small for the systems that have been set up in them. So sometimes, with the best intentions in the world, and the best efforts all round, you just can’t get your system sounding how you want it.

I chatted with one hapless individual, whose name you would probably recognize, as he sat next to an old turntable which didn’t sound like it was doing his amplifiers’ stellar reputation any favors. It seems turntables were somehow de rigeur at this year’s show.

“It looks like a Roksan Xerxes from the ‘80’s”, I offered.

“I’ve no idea what it is,” he replied with tired resignation. “The dealer found it in the back of a cupboard somewhere.”

It sounded like it hadn’t been used since the ‘80’s either.

So let me take you through a selection of rooms, because I visited them all, and frankly, you don’t need to hear about all of them. Mostly, if I didn’t write about the room it’s because I didn’t care much for the sound. But I should point out that there were a handful of fine-sounding rooms where I simply didn’t get a good enough photo, and I definitely wanted a photo of every room that gets a mention.

Also, I’ll mention again something I wrote about in more detail in my regular Copper column, “Quibbles and Bits”. The selection of music was pretty execrable across the board, and I put that down to the vinyl mania. I know this will arouse apoplexy, but the fact is nobody in the industry listens seriously to vinyl any more, and as a result, the only vinyl albums they actually possess are a meager selection of demo discs. Let’s be clear about what I mean here. I’m in the industry myself, and I still keep my turntable in pride of place on the top shelf of my equipment rack … and I even treated myself to a shiny new phono stage only last year. But I haven’t bought a new LP that wasn’t some sort of special pressing in a long time. The vast majority of my serious listening these days is digital.

So without any further ado, let’s get on with the show.

Martin Logan

Martin-Logan had a huge room in which they set up two separate systems. The first used their Expression ESL 13A speakers, but it sounded rather tubby, with a poorly-integrated bass. This, it was explained to me, was because the speakers were brand new, and needed breaking in. Really?

Martin Logan at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

Their other system, using their Renaissance ESL 15A speakers, sounded beautifully integrated, with good tonal balance, and seamless bass integration. Both of their speaker systems had built-in active room correction in their subwoofers. We persuaded them to play a recording of the Firebird Suite, and the sound was lively and highly detailed, with no hint of fatigue. But although the image had good width, there was no sense of depth at all, and the dynamic impact of the piece seemed to be MIA.


The Gershman room was highlighting their “Posh” speaker, a tall and ungainly “apparatus”-type structure that will have you thinking about the huge mondo-Wilsons. But whereas the aesthetic of the Wilsons exudes an aura of Alien-themed menace, the “Posh” is more along the lines of Space Family Robinson. The build quality appears impeccable as best as I could tell, but it nonetheless manages to convey a whiff of IKEA.

 Gershman at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

The system was set up with not one, but two separate vinyl playback rigs. The one we were listening to used an Oracle Delphi MkVI Signature turntable (which comes with its own built-in programmable light show), and the ubiquitous McIntosh amplifiers.

“Look,” said the excited salesman, “you can make the turntable light up to match the amplifiers!”

I’m guessing he was color blind. The overall sound was clean and detailed, but just wouldn’t come together at all. There was good image width, with sounds clearly located well to the left and right, but nothing really in the way of a solid three-dimensional image. And for such a large speaker system in a large room, the bass was ponderous and not seemingly well extended.

Joseph Audio

Joseph Audio can usually be relied upon to set up the sort of demo that leaves you wishing you could afford it. Their “house sound” places a great emphasis on weaknesses not drawing attention to themselves. This year they showcased their Perspective speaker system.

 Joseph Audio at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

Unusually, they powered their demo with a Technics reel-to-reel tape deck (you can’t see it on the photo) … so good luck asking for your own music to be played! Electronics were from Accustic Arts [Their spelling, not ours–-Ed.]. Overall, the system delivered a convincing orchestral soundscape, with good deep bass from an organ recording. Although deep, the bass had a slightly tubby quality that I recognized as a room signature. At high volumes the midrange tended to get a bit congested, and slightly shouty, which would concern me slightly at that price range. I’d want to know which of the system components was responsible.


The British speaker manufacturer PMC brought along their MB2 SE speaker system, a product with a kind of industrial rave-party styling that – how could I put this – wouldn’t meet with my wife’s approval. You could imagine a wall of these stacked up at a Grateful Dead concert. At $33k a pair, though, that would be some wall.

 PMC at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

I have to say that I really wanted these to sound as bad as they looked. I mean, the bass driver looks a wheel from a Ford F150 [It’s a Volt driver from the UK, often used in high-SPL pro applictions—Ed.]. But I was disappointed. I heard a smooth, well-integrated sound with deep, well-controlled bass. But when the going got tough, as with the Joseph Perspectives, there was an onset of congestion that I’d want to investigate carefully if I was in the market for a pair. They are up against some tough competition at that price point. And as it’s a price point where aesthetics are a major contributor to the purchasing decision, I guess I’m not clear who the target demographic is.

Audio by Mark Jones

This was a room put together by a Toronto-area dealer, showcasing a system comprising the Kronos turntable (arm and cartridge unknown), electronics from CH Precision, Magico S3 speakers, with cables by Nordost.

 Audio by Mark Jones at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

Here’s some good advice for you – leave it to a reputable independent dealer if you ever want to listen to a first-rate curated system. Having said that, though, I was rather disappointed at the overall effect of this impeccable assemblage of equipment. Without doubt there was a seriously high-quality sound in there trying to get out, but it absolutely couldn’t tame the room’s energy-sapping bass mode. The system showed excellent dynamic control, but not much in the way of a holographic image. And there was a worryingly fatiguing quality to the sound that may or may not have been down to an extremely system-unfriendly hotel-room setup.


Totem is a Montreal-based loudspeaker manufacturer that has been around for a long while now, and has developed a well-earned reputation for honest, value-for-money performance, offering a peek into the capabilities of the serious high end, but at a more affordable price point.

 Totem at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

Totem’s niche is small, usually bookshelf speakers. It has been my experience that the bigger their speakers get, the less satisfactorily they fare when pitted against similarly priced competition. But the bookshelf is absolutely their wheelhouse. I listened to a tiny floor-standing speaker called the Tribe Tower, which seems an odd designation for a product that barely comes up to your knees. It looks as though the dog might knock them over if it gets too close when it wags its tail, but in fact they are quite sturdy and stable. They play in the $5,500 price point where they face a lot of competition. But they are easy to listen to, and are well voiced with the usual upper mid-bass hump to camouflage the lack of deep bass. Dynamics are limited, but not unduly so given their price. My only reservation is that you’ll need to get them well away from the back wall in order to generate a good soundstage, and having such physically unimposing speakers well out in the room is going to look awfully odd to a lot of potential customers.

Luna Cables

Eric Fortier and Danny Labrecque, the co-founders of Luna Cables, spent many years working the trenches as salesmen at Montreal’s high-end dealer Coup de Foudre before branching out to form their own cable company. Luna co-exhibited with Yamaha, using their cables to power an all-Yamaha system comprising retro-styled electronics and a re-issue of their iconic NS-1000 studio monitor loudspeakers.

 Luna Cables at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

The old NS-1000 monitors, dating back to the mid-1970’s, were legendary in their own way. They were the ultimate ruthlessly revealing studio monitor, which made them at once both loved and loathed. Loved, because in a studio setting you could hear absolutely everything. Loathed, because these were the speakers for whom the term “fatiguing” was coined. It has recently been re-issued … and the modern incarnation not only looks identical to the original, but absolutely retains its essential character. It is still as revealing as a thong bikini, if not nearly as sexy.

This is where Luna Cables comes in. What poor cables do to a system, is rob it of its temporal coherence. Of course, if you’ve never heard a system with absolute temporal coherence, chances are you won’t recognize one that lacks it. But if you have, you know that most systems simply don’t have it. And if you need a lesson, just pop round to the Luna Cables room and allow the NS-1000’s to do their revealing thing. Last year my jaw dropped when I listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley” on the Yamaha/Luna system. It taught me lessons about my own system. This year, they too used a vinyl source, and a (small) stack of audiophile-approved LPs, so all I got to listen to was stuff that wasn’t nearly so challenging. But it was still most convincing. Luna Cables are right up there with the very best. At some point I plan to install them chez BitPerfect.

Son Idéal

Son Idéal is another local Montreal dealership, and they curated a system to die for, comprising retro Luxman electronics (including the ubiquitous turntable) and a pair of Harbeth Monitor 30.2 40th Anniversary Edition loudspeakers.

 Son Idéal at Montreal Audio Fest 2018 

This was, without a doubt, my favorite room of the whole show. Not necessarily the best, since there were rooms where the speakers, amplifiers, and even the cables alone cost more than this entire system, and I’ve left those to the very end. But this was a really gorgeous system. The sound just totally enveloped you. It was pure, and detailed, with excellent temporal coherence (using AudioQuest cables), and satisfying dynamics. The imaging, while not spectacular, was still the best I heard at the show. And all for less than $24k (Canadian dollars) for the whole shebang.

I put the majority of what I heard down to the Harbeth Monitors. At Can$7k a pair (according to the dealer), I haven’t heard anything that comes close for less than twice the price. Maybe even three times the price. Certainly not at this show. The 40th Anniversary Edition models are apparently a strictly limited production run, so anybody in the market for a speaker in this price range needs to make a serious effort to track it down and audition it sooner rather than later.

And finally, they had a wonderful LP to play for me … “Milstein Masterpieces for Violin and Orchestra”. I presumed it was a special audiophile pressing, but looking at the photo I took of the cover I’m not so sure.


I have to report on this oddball Canadian company. I have seen them at the show before, and they have quite a product range, so I reckon they must be doing good business. Everything they sell is made of bamboo. Including their turntable. Yep, a wooden turntable. With a wooden pickup arm.

Tri-Art Audio at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

I’ve seen this apparently absurd turntable combo before, but since vinyl was obligatory this year, they actually used it to power their demo system. And it works. Is it as good as, for example, the venerable Linn Sondek? Frankly, I don’t think so. But it does work, and I have to say I’ve heard worse. We listened on a pair of their full-range open-baffle speakers, and the sound was quite … interesting. Not desperately bad at all. The bass was disappointingly woolly, but we heard pretty good imaging which is what you would expect from dipoles in a small room. But when I got them to play Dvorak’s Cello Concerto for me, it really struggled with the complex music. Was it the wooden turntable? Hard to tell. I think the bottom line is, you’ve got to really, really want a wooden hi-fi.


The British company Chord makes some seriously good equipment, and not only that, they employ some seriously distinctive out-there industrial design. Kudos to them. Chord exhibited in the Bluebird Distribution room, with Vienna Acoustics.

 Chord at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

The system featured the DAVE DAC, one of my favorite DACs on the market today, the CPM 3350 integrated amplifier, and a Blu Mk. 2 transport, all feeding a pair of Vienna Acoustics Liszt speakers.
It all looked just great. Really great.
The sound was great. Really great.
The music was awful. Really awful.


Kimbercan is, not surprisingly, the Canadian distributor of Kimber Cable, and they also distribute several manufacturers’ products, including PS Audio and Neat Acoustics.

 Kimber Canad at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

The featured system had PS Audio’s Stellar Series electronics, including the Gain Cell DAC and a pair of M700 monoblock ampifiers, driving a pair of Neat Acoustics iota Xplorer small-ish floorstanding speakers. The system was actually an exceptional performer at the price ($10k Canadian for the whole shebang), not least due to the AMT ribbon tweeter used in the speaker. The sound was exceptionally listenable, if also exceptionally unspectacular. But that’s what you want at this price point. Spectacular at the $10k point inevitably ends up being fatiguing, and this system is not going to do either. It’s a sound I could easily live with. And, distributor Don Rhule was keen to point out, the Neats come with a choice of attractive grill-cover colors. Way to go, Neat!

Glowering at us in the corner was PS Audio’s new P20 Power Plant. I didn’t get to hear it, since it wasn’t being used, but I did get to (attempt to) lift it up. I got one corner about one inch off the table. That is one heavy MF.

Focal / Esoteric

Über-system No. 1 featured the Focal Scala Utopia Evo loudspeakers, powered by Esoteric electronics, all connected up using AudioQuest cables.

 Focal and Esoteric at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

This offered everything you ever wanted out of a cost-no-object system. Enough performance to retire on, with looks that match the sound, absolutely oozing European elegance. This is a system that demands a listening chair of the finest, most supple full-grain leather, where you’ll be sitting back, closing your eyes, and smiling contentedly. There is no way a system like this can even come close to delivering on its full potential at an audio show, but what we did hear was sublime, most notably on Dominique Fils-Aimé’s “Bird”. You just want to purr. As for price? Well, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Oh, but if you wanted to spend even more … well, sir, we can help you with that too!

Wilson / Simaudio

Über-system No. 2 featured the Wilson Alexia loudspeakers, powered by Simaudio electronics, and wired together by AudioQuest, all courtesy of high-end dealer Sonor Filtronique.

 Wilson Audio and Simaudio at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

This cost-no-object system wears a distinctly North American countenance, contrasting pointedly with the Focal / Esoteric system above. Where the Focal system is all about understated elegance, the Wilson / Simaudio system is about uncompromising in-your-face performance. From the behemoth Simaudio 888 monoblock amplifiers, via the AudioQuest interconnects that would put my house’s plumbing to shame, to the Wilson speakers with their hewn-from-a-single-block-of-granite appearance, this set-up announces to the room, “Yeah, buddy, here I am!”. The sound is astonishing. Detailed, and effortlessly dynamic. And so demanding of your full attention.

It is Beethoven to the Focal / Esoteric’s Mozart. The Stones to its Beatles. Jacques Brel to its Charles Aznavour. Screaming Eagle to its Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Violin+Orchestra, Part 2

Lawrence Schenbeck

So many concertos, so little time.

When I decided to devote two whole TMT columns to (ahem!) Violin Concertos After Beethoven, my aim seemed simple: I would sort through a pile of recent recordings, find the best and/or most provocative specimens, and report on them. I would not, could not attempt a comprehensive survey, but I might explore a few ways in which violin concertos have evolved, morphed, deconstructed, or otherwise left the building over the last hundred years.

Alas. I was besieged by bouts of remorse every time I remembered another Great Concerto I was leaving out of my non-survey. No Barber. No Bernstein. No Stravinsky. Nothing Anne-Sophie Mutter had wrung out of Lutosławski. My list of shamefully neglected masterworks grew longer and longer. The last straw arrived when I saw Mark Lehman’s review of British Violin Concertos (Naxos 8.57391; see below) in TAS. Then I stumbled upon a website devoted to BVC’s, with none of the Naxos contributors (Patterson, Leighton, Jacob) even mentioned. Elgar was there, but not Britten or Vaughan Williams! Or Thomas Adès, for peat’s sake (actually not a heartbreaking omission). Somehow this cured me.

So here are a few not-quite-random thoughts about recent concerto recordings. We’ll begin with lesser-known music, then move on to the completely unknown, while glancing occasionally at Part 1’s original chew toy: abstract formalism vs. narrative or programmatic themes. You don’t need me to tell you about Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or Bruch. But we will start with recognizable music.

For instance, lately I’ve been struck by just how ubiquitous the music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) has become. He wrote in a lush late-Romantic style that nearly everyone enjoys. And he gave us not one but two violin concertos! Listen to the opening of Concerto No. 1 (1916):

00:00 / 01:46

Gorgeous, right? Plenty of rhythmic vitality, plus color: delicate, quicksilver swarmings from various instruments. Then that breathtaking lyrical entrance by the soloist. Szymanowski seems to have been inspired partly by his friend Tadeusz Miciński’s poem “May Night”:

Donkeys in crowns settle on the grass –
Fireflies kiss the wild rose –
While death flickers over the pond
And plays its wanton song.

Brings to mind A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except for the bit about death (Divinely Decadent, that). We should bear in mind that this was composed during the upheavals of World War I, which found Szymanowski relatively isolated. But he had already had transformative experiences: sexual awakenings in the Mediterranean and North Africa, performances heard elsewhere of Pelléas et Mélisande, The Firebird, and Petrushka. He met Stravinsky in London and initiated a friendly correspondence. Later, he read extensively: Greek tragedy; histories of Islam, ancient Rome, and early Christendom; Plato, Da Vinci, Persian poetry. All this helped him break with German Romanticism and led to a period of enormous creativity, resulting in the Violin Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 3 (inspired by Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī) plus many songs and chamber works. In short, he became Szymanowski!

Here’s another taste:

00:00 / 01:53

You’ll be reminded of Debussy, Scriabin, and Richard Strauss, plus some refined Orientalism. Quite a heady mixture. Formally, this is a continuous, freely ordered fantasy, although you can break it down into rondo form. So: narrative. Definitely narrative.

Szymanowski’s second violin concerto was the last major work he completed. Its one-movement structure is not unlike that of No. 1, but the folk influence of the Tatra Mountains, where Szymanowski had a villa, is obvious:

00:00 / 01:10

We have been listening to a new recording of the two concertos plus a third by Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1090)—a perfect aggregation, I think—from Tasmin Little and the BBC SO conducted by Edward Gardner (Chandos CHSA 5185). Fine performances, sterling hi-res sound. Highly recommended. (Gardner has also recorded the Szymanowski symphonies in hi-res for Chandos.)

Indeed, Szymanowski is big these days, so I wasn’t surprised to find another new recording of Concerto No. 1 in my review pile. It’s a very good one too, from Anne Akiko Meyers and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi (Avie AV2385). As good as her Szymanowski is, though, the real treasure here is a Fantasia by great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which Meyers commissioned in 2014. She wrote about her experience at length for Gramophone, so I’ll quote from that:

In December [2014], I flew to Helsinki to meet Rautavaara and perform the work for him. . . . [His] apartment was flooded with a special light that only seems to exist at the edge of the earth, overlooking the sea. . . . After I played Fantasia, he looked at me and repeatedly said, “I wrote such beautiful music!” We all laughed and agreed. . . . I was amazed that he made no changes to any notes or dynamics. Everything was in place just the way he wrote it. Fantasia is transcendent and has the feeling of an elegy with a very personal reflective mood. . . . I thank him from the bottom of my heart for writing a masterpiece that makes me cry every time I listen to it.

You should listen to it too. There’s a SoundCloud track at the bottom of that Gramophone piece with the whole Fantasia on it. Very nice recording, incidentally, done at London’s Air Studios, and exceptionally good liner notes by Jim Svejda.

Time for more challenging terrain. This next concerto is called Under City Skin, for violin, strings, and “surround sound” (more precisely, a mixture of musique concrète and synthesized materials). You may have trouble figuring out which is which. Was that a bird, or violin harmonics? A Mercedes-Benz revving up, or a tone generator? We begin by following a pair of high heels through a typical Hitchcock soundscape:


If you listen patiently with few expectations, it grows on you; the surround sound helps. This ambitious, interesting work by Rolf Wallin is featured on an SACD from BIS (2242) along with Eivind Buene’s Miniatures and Violin Concerto. In the latter, you’ll recognize the music of that concerto’s third movement:

00:00 / 01:40

Right out of the Berg concerto. Really quite evocative in this new context, though. I liked it, just not as much as Wallin’s piece.

As I mentioned, Mark Lehman likes a new Naxos recording of British Violin Concertos. So do I. Violinist Clare Howick pulls together three relatively conservative works by Paul Patterson (b.1947), Kenneth Leighton (1929–1988), and Gordon Jacob (1895–1984). Tuneful, lively, and sturdy, all of them. Here’s a bit of the Patterson:

00:00 / 01:38

But let’s move quickly on, to end with some kale-laced quinoa: 21st Century Violin Concertos from Harriet Mackenzie and the ESO conducted by Kenneth Woods (Nimbus Alliance NI6295). Includes music by Patterson (Allusions for two solo violins and strings), Deborah Pritchard (b. 1977), David Matthews (b. 1943), Robert Fokkens (b. 1975), and Emily Doolittle (b. 1972). It’s a collection unified only by Mackenzie’s involvement with these composers, so you may find it uneven. I liked Pritchard’s Wall of Water (2014), inspired by paintings of Maggie Hambling. There’s a promotional video on YouTube, but it doesn’t give you a very good idea of how the music unfolds. Check out Mackenzie’s complete performance with the Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra:


You can purchase only the tracks you wish here, on a Chandos website. Try Doolittle’s short, lovely falling still, its narrative focused on rain and birdsong, if you’re on the fence about other selections.

Next: 2018’s Greatest Hits so far.

Ergonomics and Other Gooey Messes

Bill Leebens

In my teen years, my reading was wide-ranging and varied, aided by access to the million-volume Morris Library at Southern Illinois University. It was originally a handsome building done in the Chicago style of architecture, but recent generic “updates” have left it unremarkable and unrecognizable.

Back then, I struggled through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and  breezed through Thomas McGuane’s quirky Ninety-two in the Shade, alongside such varied gems as Laurence Klauber’s massive monograph, Rattlesnakes, Pauline Kael’s The Citizen Kane Book, and George Lois’ memoir,  George, Be Careful— from the genius who dreamed up the great Esquire covers of the ’60s and ’70s.

But if there was a single book from that period  that transformed the way I looked at things, it was Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World —still in print 45 years after its initial publication, which should tell you something about the book’s influence and worth. Papanek viewed the design of everything—houses, cars, kitchenware, appliances—as part of a mission to make life better by improving the functionality of our surroundings.

Papanek’s vision of design encompassed everything from the readability of typefaces and the choice of materials for home furnishings to the biomechanics involved in operating switches, controls, steering wheels—pretty much every kind of human interaction with devices and environs. To the dismay of my friends, Papanek hammered the term “ergonomics” into my brain. Ergonomics is often referred to as “human factors design”, making sure that designed environments can be utilized in safety, comfort, and with low risk of injury. If you’ve ever suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, you probably are familiar with non-ergonomic design.

The teenage me would encounter something poorly-designed and would pontificate, “well, that’s clearly an ergonomic nightmare“—accompanied by the eye-rolls of friends who came to repeat the words as I spoke them, echoing my outraged tone. In spite of the chiding, ergonomic design became a bit of an obsession for me. As I entered engineering courses, I read everything I could find on the subject—which in the mid-’70s, wasn’t much.

If you look at interiors of cars of that period and earlier, you’ll encounter controls that seemed to have been strewn randomly about, some hidden behind the steering wheel, others placed beyond the reach of all but orangutans, with knobs and toggles protruding dangerously from the dash. God help you if an untethered you was thrown against the dash by an abrupt stop. Jay Leno used to talk about the unyielding sheet-metal dashboard of his ’55 Buick: “no sissy padding on the dash here (thump, thump)—somebody dies in a wreck, ya just hose off the blood and sell it to the next guy.” Ah, the good old days….

These days the phrase “ergonomically-designed” is all too often thrown around meaninglessly, just another buzzphrase like “European-inspired” or “rack and pinion”, and it’s sometimes used as a lame excuse as to why something is really ugly. If there were ever a field in which Mies’ axiom of “form follows function” held true, it’s in ergonomically-aware design. That doesn’t mean such designs have to be ugly; in the audio world we know that from old B&O designs, Dieter Rams’ Braun work, and many others.

As we morph from a hard-edged, finite  physical world to a digital one of infinite changeability and those damned “soft” buttons, there is, astonishingly enough, a lot more attention being paid to exactly how well things work for and with the human beings using them. We can thank or blame video games and smartphones: when your hyper-addicted users are playing Runescape or tweeting for 14 hours at a crack, you don’t want them sent in agony to the ER.

These days, you’ll encounter folks who specialize in UX and GUI: the former is a misspelled abbreviation for “user experience”, and combines code-writing, old-school engineering, and graphic design. Every aspect of interaction between device and user are considered and mastered. —Or so they’ll tell you: it’s not just a work in progress, it’s a whole school of design in progress, and like most coding, there will be bugs. Why do you think  there are so many operating system updates from virtually everyone?

That second term stands for Graphical User Interface, and usually isn’t pronounced gee-you-eye, but “gooey”. The first time I heard, “but how’re we doing with the GOOEY??” in a meeting, I wondered if the speaker had problems with hygiene. Like a true cynic, I kept my lack of knowledge to myself, nodded sagely, and said, “good question!”

All those cluttered touch-screens and icons and symbols and pictures used to interact with a computer or similar device—those are all elements of GUI. All the ways that you tell a thing how to do something without using hard mechanical switches or keyboards: GUI. Gooey is everywhere, unavoidable, inescapable—until we get into voice control. And what do we call that?

“Owie”? Auditory User Interface? “Vooey?” Verbal User Interface? I think I like FUI, pronounced “PHOOEY”—Frustrated User Interface, when the damn thing can’t understand what you’re saying??

Ah, technology: the more we know, the more there is we don’t know….

Leonardo examined ergonomics centuries before the term existed.

Debt Is Death (Sometimes)

Bill Leebens

Our focus this time in Industry News will be on a thread that connects a number of businesses that have been in the news, including mentions in this column. Businesses run on cash: that’s hardly a news flash. But how and why they get that cash can affect their ability to respond to adverse circumstances, and ultimately, to survive.

Borrowing money to take a publicly-traded company private, is not a new concept. Such transactions are generally called leveraged buyouts, or LBOs. The earliest large-scale LBO in modern America was executed by Henry Ford and his son Edsel in 1919. The Fords borrowed $75 million from a consortium of east coast banks and were able to buy out other shareholders and take the company private, and under direct control of the Ford family. The total purchase price of $106 million was considered staggeringly-large at the time; equivalent to $1.6 billion today, it’s hardly chump change, but pales in comparison to deals that we routinely see today.

The US economy had a downturn in the early ’20s, and Ford faced a cash-crunch due to the debt-load (a situation that we’ll encounter again as we go on). Enforcing stipulations of the dealers’ contractual agreements, Ford forced dealers to take more inventory, which had to be paid for. By doing so, Ford effectively transferred their singular, massive debt to hundreds of dealers, and disaster was avoided. A cautionary tale, no?

Ford went public again in 1956, and while the Ford family only owns about 2% of all shares today, they still control 40% of the voting power at the company. That 2% of shares puts the value of Ford family holdings at just under $1B, and the family’s voting power/control  is considered a major reason why the company was able to avoid bankruptcy in 2009, while the other major US automakers, GM and Chrysler, required government bailouts.

During the 1980s LBOs and the wacky world of M&A (mergers and acquisitions) went berserk, with big-money deals funded by issuance of high-risk, high-yield (if you were lucky) bonds. Old-guard financial types quickly labeled such bonds, “junk bonds”—and they were sometimes right. Private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) were leaders in the field, and in 1988 executed the LBO of RJR Nabisco. At $25 billion, it was the largest LBO of its day (equivalent to $50B today, give or take a billion or two). [We dwelled upon KKR in The Audio Cynic some time ago, as well—Ed.]

Those highly-leveraged deals lost favor after many went kablooey. In the years since we’ve had the dot.com bubble, the real estate boom-gone-bust that led to the 2008 recession, and most recently, a likely bubble in the tech world. Have we learned anything? Maybe. Maybe not.

Looked up a stock quote on Toys R Us lately? You can’t, because the company was taken private in 2005 by KKR, the Vornado Realty Trust and Bain Capital. (Bain was until recently the owner of D+M Group, previously D&M Holdings, owners of Denon, Marantz, and Boston Acoustics, and recently sold to another holding group, Sound United. A few years back the group sold cash-cow McIntosh in order to pay down the debt incurred by buying up brands. Sound familiar?)

So how’s Toys R Us doing? Carrying $5 billion in debt, with service of that debt burning through $400M/year, the company couldn’t afford to update its properties. The worn-out, aging stores, coupled with declining market share courtesy of Amazon and Wal Mart, led to a Chapter 11 filing last fall. A weak Christmas season didn’t help, and in January the company announced intentions to shut down 182 US stores, and UK operations were sent into receivership. On Wednesday, March 14, the company announced that all 700+ US stores would close. Say goodbye to 33,000 jobs. Sadly—and perhaps ironically—Charles Lazarus, the founder of Toys R Us, died a week after the closure announcement, at the age of 94.

How about the country’s largest owner of radio stations? They’ve got to be doing well, right?

Clear Channel Radio managed to pile up $8B in debt while buying up stations nationwide, then was acquired by Thomas H. Lee and Bain Capital (are you sensing a common thread here?) by racking up another $10B in debt. Ultimately, the company, awkwardly relabeled iHeart Media, accumulated $20B in debt. As ad revenue from iHeart’s 850 radio stations declined, the company branched out into concert production and online assets. In February, the company was unable to make a scheduled coupon payment of $106M—and on March 14, iHeart Media filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Odd that it occurred the same day that Toys R Us announced the shutdown of all stores: clearly a bad day for Bain.

“Worn-out, aging stores”—sound like anyone else? We’ve looked at the perilous situation of Sears several times: here , here, and here.  Once the country’s largest retailer with thousands of stores, Sears also failed to keep up with the times. A merger-of-sorts (think of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler) of Sears and K-Mart took place in 2005, led by hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert, and saddled the company with major debt and created a new entity, Sears Holdings. Between them, the two struggling chains had 3,500 stores. Lampert realized that the company’s most valuable assets were its extensive real estate holdings and its brands: DieHard, Craftsman, Kenmore.

Lampert sold off much of the real estate, and shut down hundreds of stores. At this point, only about 1,000 stores remain: 570 Sears stores, 432 K-Marts. The Craftsman brand name was sold off to Stanley Black & Decker; DieHard batteries and Kenmore appliances are now sold through Amazon. Meanwhile, same-store sales dropped 14% last year compared to 2016, and overall sales dropped 25%. Sears’ last profitable year was 2010, and the company has lost $10.8B since then.

Debt? Interest payments in 2017 totaled $539M, and Standard & Poors dropped the company’s credit rating to “Ca”, the lowest level of  junk. S&P also warned that it expects Sears to begin defaulting upon its obligations.

In the midst of this doom-saying, Sears managed to post its first quarterly profit in three years—not because of a spike in sales, but because of  a $470M boost from the new tax bill. Overall, 2017 was still a disaster, with losses of $357M—almost a million dollars per day.

Another Industry News poster child is Gibson Brands, parent of Gibson Guitar and a number of audio brands—which we’ve previously looked at here, here, and here. A decade-long buying spree has left the company with a half-billion or so in debt, while the market for guitars and other musical instruments is in decline.  While CEO Henry Juszkiewicz remains confident about the company’s viability, almost no one else is.

As early as last year, fears surfaced of the company defaulting on its debt, and recently Standard & Poors downgraded Gibson’s credit rating yet again to CCC-, a low “junk” rating indicating that default is imminent.

A likely outcome is that the company will be thrown into involuntary bankruptcy by its creditors, with some companies sold off, others shut down. CEO Juszkiewicz is the only person expressing optimism regarding his continued tenure at the empire he built, as layoffs begin worldwide in  Gibson companies.

Who says business is boring?

The last five years of Sears. Eddie Lampert would be happy to take your money. All of it.

What's Past Is Prologue

Bill Leebens

The older I get—and at this point, I’m as old as dirt— the more I become aware that there is very little objective judgment in life. The one thing I remember from a college philosophy course is Kierkegaard’s Truth Is Subjectivity, and I’m convinced that pretty much every thing we see, say, or do is influenced by our subjective personal experiences , preconceptions, and expectations. In other words: our past.

Our interactions with other humans and with the world may well be influenced by that girl we fixated upon in junior high, or that car a cool kid had in high school, or that stereo that made Dark Side of the Moon just come alive, back in ’73.

Okay,  fine. Is there any way in which we can objectively separate the elements of our past from the perceptions of the present?

I’m really not sure.

So—basically, there may well be no rational basis or  justification for many of our life-decisions, whether it’s choosing a career, a spouse—or a stereo system. Groovy.

When it comes to audio gear, I was warped over 50 years by my Uncle Art’s home hi-fi—a console that contained an Ampex reel-to-reel with Marantz electronics, playing through a pair of massive Altec Laguna corner horns. It wasn’t just the sound that was captivating; I loved (and still love) Danish Modern/Mid Century Modern design, and the way that the bulky Lagunas managed to seem almost light, and sprightly.

I didn’t snag Uncle Art’s Lagunas, but through the years I have owned audio gear with a similar MCM vibe: a JBL Paragon, Altec Valencias, a massive 7′ long Fisher President console—$20 at an estate sale, and I wish I still had it. Truly lovely sound that rocked— I still remember how Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” shook the whole house with the synth line. Moreso than with my tri-amped Tympanis. Shocked the hell out of me.

That doesn’t mean that those embedded aesthetics completely determine my audio purchases; if that were the case, I certainly couldn’t have gotten the Frankenstein’s lab-looking Plasmatronics. But then, I’m not using them every day, either.

My every-day drivers (pun intended) do have a unique, kinda-MCM look. The Spica Angelus’ asymmetrical form was designed purely to define and control the dispersion pattern, but the fact that they look like a stylized representation of an angel is either a benefit or a liability, depending on your viewpoint. I happen to like the look, and they certainly look lighter than a standard 6-sided box of their size would. Would I have liked them if I hadn’t been preconditioned by the Lagunas and a childhood home with Sunset and House Beautiful?

Well, there’s no way to tell, is there? It’s not as though I can selectively delete those segments of my psyche and just go >RECALCULATING< and re-think things, free of the effects of that data. I am the sum total of all my life’s influences… as are we all. Like it or not.

When my daughter Emily was small, she took a sip of my coffee—and immediately spat it out.

“YUCK! How can you drink that?”

Trying to be both rational and instructive, I patiently said, “Well, honey, it’s an acquired taste.”

Still making ptooey ptooey efforts to rid herself of the bitter taste, Emily asked, “What good is something if you have to LEARN to LIKE it?”

As usual, I learned more from my child than she learned from me. In the years since Emily—now a 22-year-old java junkie—asked it, that question has come back to me many times.

As a mostly-grown-up I’ve come to like a number of things I once reviled: Bitches Brew, Brussels sprouts, cognac, Christopher Walken. I assume that somewhere along the way I learned or experienced something that altered my receptivity to such things. But would I have ended up being receptive if there wasn’t the synaptic road-map that led up to the new experiences?

There’s that damn past again. I guess there’s no getting away from it.

Cables: Speaker Cable Design, Part 2

Galen Gareis

Part 1 of this article in the previous issue ended with the design brief for conductors in a speaker cable. I described why I chose a star-quad geometry using a  20-mil wire diameter in a 24-wire (12 bonded pairs) woven polarity. We continue with the next subheads under the Design Brief for speaker cables.

2) Dielectric materials

Again, Teflon® was chosen as it is the best solid dielectric there is. I needed a thin wall to bring the wires close together for inductance reduction, but capacitance is an issue with 24 closely spaced wires.

A capacitor is two parallel conductive plates with an insulator between them. To lower capacitance, I wanted a low-dielectric-constant plastic (Teflon®). To achieve the required low capacitance, more needs to be done to “thicken” the insulation without increasing loop area effects. This seems impossible to do, but it isn’t with the woven design described above. The final insulation wall was driven by balancing capacitive gains with inductive reduction. Dielectric geometry allowed this balance to be accomplished.

3) Dielectric geometry

The requirement to meet capacitance also drove the design to a weave pattern. Each polarity is separate; there is no interweaving of same polarity wires. What if we had wires with several AWG sizes? Current will flow along the path of least resistance. This does not mean current won’t flow in specific wires, just that the majority of the current magnitude is shifted to the easier path. Every wire will have current at all frequencies. The magnitude will change and follow Ohm’s law. Many differing wires sizes and electrical lengths can impact the signal arrival times across the audio band based on physical conductor lengths in composite wire-size designs.

If we take two wires with the same skin depth (same frequency point being considered), but one wire has twice the surface area, more current will flow into the larger surface area wire. It offers less resistance. But, the lower resistance wire is larger, and not ideal if we want the current across the wire to be more uniform. Bigger wires are better at lowering resistance at a given frequency because they have the most surface area. We use this at RF with a “skin” of copper to carry the lowest, yet still high, frequencies efficiently. The wire’s core under the copper is a material that is “filler” and has no current flow, such as steel or aluminum.

At lower frequencies the current is diffusion coupled evenly through the entire wire. So if you send just low frequencies, use as low a DCR wire as you can get.

Those are the extremes. Audio is weird in that we need to improve current coherence through the wire while it is trying to move to the outside surface. We don’t care about attenuation as much since it is negligible at audio frequencies. We make the conscious decision to go for forced current coherence with more small wires. This technically violates the practice of more “surface” area for lower attenuation at high frequencies for current coherence. Big wire offers more surface area for lower attenuation, while small wire offers better current coherence, but higher attenuation.

With interconnects, if you use one wire, the current delivery has to be considered to the load. RCA and XLR cables have near zero current flow into the high impedance load, so we can go for signal current coherence and suffer little attenuation. Speaker cables can’t use too few wires as there are 20-30 amps coursing through a speaker cable.

Good audio performance is about trying to time align the low and high frequencies, so the best and most consistent way to do this is to use more small wires that add up to the low frequency DCR needs, and are small enough to force the wire to see more and more cross sectional current usage at higher frequencies. This means several small insulated wires that all need to be the same “single” wire.

The unique woven design does a lot to reduce inductance and associated capacitance. How is 59% reduced inductance over a single bonded pair achieved?


  • Star quad wire arrangement. Allows ideal geometry for low field strength
  • Bonded-pair like polarity wires. Allows star quads to be formed throughout the weave
  • Separate polarity fields are not parallel, to reduce field reinforcements. Fields between polarities have some cancellation since they cross at angles, and are not ever parallel. (Wires that cross at ninety degrees cancel completely)


  • Low dielectric constant plastic. Thinnest possible C-C with the lowest cap
  • Woven pattern averages out the wire-to-wire distances significantly. Woven pattern separates the wires, and “tricks” the bulk capacitive value to be far lower

The last point on the capacitive reduction is also what we like in a flat design, but it is inconsistent. Average distance between any two wires in a braided polarity, and thus between polarities, is far more consistent. The weave moves all the wires evenly, and consistently, to a closest proximity position and a maximum proximity position throughout the weave. Capacitance and inductance do vary, but in a controlled and expected way. The fattened weave holds overall capacitance to an unexpectedly low value of 45 pF/foot in a cable with such high conductor count.

Low inductance leverages the same current direction in the bonded pairs, combined with the star-quad wire geometry periodicity. And finally, the tight textile weave between polarity halves, forces a low loop area, and with wires never being parallel, further reducing inductance.

The overall reactance of the cable is shown in the graph below:

The chart illustrates a significant drop (yellow trace) in cable impedance compared to 1313A (blue trace). We know why this happened. The velocity, although variable, is nearly the same at each specific swept frequency point. We need to look at frequency-by-frequency calculations. The capacitance is linear across the entire audio band so that’s a set value.

We have a set value of capacitance, and a nearly set value of velocity (there will be slight variation) at a given frequency. What is changing is fundamentally the capacitance between cable designs for “impedance” characterization. The impedance equation is influenced by the change in capacitance, and thereby is the lower measured impedance, as the capacitance is in the denominator of the impedance equation. Increasing the capacitance from ~16 pF/foot to ~45 pF/foot decreases ICONOCLAST cable impedance. Speaker cables require low inductance, and need to get there without shooting capacitance through the roof.

Design is the overriding requirement, and materials, alongside unprovable theory, are second. Now we know why ICONOCLAST has the capacitance it does, as I can balance the inductance to industry-leading values, and still keep capacitance low, yet not so low as to increase impedance too much relative to the input requirement. Cables go up in impedance as you drop in frequency, the opposite of what we want. Listening tests have to decide if the superb inductance or impedance matching with much higher cable capacitance is ideal. Quick calculations will show capacitance problems with 8 ohm cables at audio once an amplifier is attached.

Don’t ignore the reactive time constants of L and C. We want an 8 ohm cable with no L and C, and zero resistance, and you can’t do that. Getting cable “impedance” reasonably low is more reliably safe for amplifiers.

4) Shield material and design considerations

I kept this topic here on purpose. Some may already know that the signal levels of low impedance cables negate the need for a shield. And that’s a good thing because a shield over a speaker cable is darn near always a bad thing for two reasons:

  1. A shield will always increase capacitance of the cable. The question is how much.
  2. To mitigate the capacitance increase, the shield must be moved significantly away from the core polarities, increasing the size of the cable.

Shields are only beneficial if the environment demands them. View a shield as a rain coat; great if you have water flying around but a major hindrance if you don’t. Coaxial cables are an exception as the shield defines the cable’s natural impedance. The ground-plane proximity and uniformity are vitally important with short-wavelength RF cables. Coaxial cables allow just that. Audio is not RF, and these shields are more FUD devices (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) than than actually beneficial. This is especially in speaker cables whose signals are orders of magnitude over the background noise.

Audio seldom needs shielding on low-impedance cables and this is because magnetic fields decay rapidly with distance. The best defense is to move the low-frequency electromagnetic cables away from one another. The foil and even braid shields are higher frequency shields that are ineffective at much below 1 MHz. Magnetic fields lines need low permeability shield material (something a magnet will stick to) to route flux lines away from sensitive devices. A Faraday cage is a good example of a magnetic shield device. Low permeability metallic shields are a pain to use because they are stiff and heavy. Distance is the best remedy.

5) Jacket design and material considerations

All ICONOCLAST cables use FEP (fluorinated ethylene propylene) as the jacket to reduce UV-sensitivity and plasticizer migration, and provide chemical resistance. The cables are designed to last decades.


Little has been left to chance in the design of ICONOCLAST cables. All the products are born from strict measurements and the management of known electrical parameters. Belden’s philosophy is to make as low and R, L, and C cables as technically capable. The improvement to some may be unimportant. To others, and using different systems, they can be significant. The closer we manage the knowns, the better the tertiary elements will move along with those improvements.

All cables “react” differently. ICONOCLAST is designed to offer the most benign interaction possible between your amplifier and speaker by leveraging high-speed digital design principles to the much more complex audio band.

Desert Island 1

Desert Island 1

Desert Island 1

Charles Rodrigues

Rikki Farr, Part 1

Dan Schwartz

[Rikki Farr had a long career as a raconteur and concert promoter, starting with the Beatles ‘way back at the dawn of time—well, the early ’60’s, anyway. Son of Tommy Farr, the British and Empire heavyweight champion who once fought Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium, brother to the late Gary Farr, popular UK blues singer, Rikki has been associated with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to The Tubes, is well-remembered for his Isle of Wight rant in 1970, and has a million stories to tell. Copper‘s Dan Schwartz, veteran musician and #1 Beatles fan, had a lengthy, rambling conversation with Rikki at his office at Riva Audio, where Rikki is founder and guru. This is the first of three installments—come along for the ride!—Ed.]

D.S.: So – you came to the US in ‘78.  I said you were a tax exile. You said what really happened was…

R.F.: If you recall, the Socialist government came into power – I think it was in what was ‘76 or ‘77. And for some reason, they decided –  that all people in entertainment, and I never could figure this out – because a lot of the soccer stars were getting the same adulation, like George  Best, they used to call that – the 5th Beatle.  (laughs) And they put this, I think it was, 86% tax on everybody.  Plus, they had this crazy idea of back taxes you owed.  And it was just so unreasonable and unfair that there was a massive brain drain of musicians.  Stones went to France, Floyd went off..,everybody, everybody left.

D.S.:  Except Ringo.  Ringo maintained a house, but he lived in Monaco too.

R.F.: Right.  Well, you see, you could put the house in somebody else’s name.  I had a beautiful farmhouse that I had renovated that was on the Lord Ingatestone estate, in Essex.  And I had 18 acres.  That is where I would go on weekends; I had a barn where I was recording, and I had indoor…it was just a beautiful farm.  Lived in London on Kersey Street most of the time.

And there seemed to be, for some reason, a real class – I wouldn’t call it a warfare…but there was some sort of a real class..

D.S.:  Resentment?

R.F.:  …Distinction, they didn’t like.  I used to go into the bank – I was doing quite well in those days – And I would go in and put my money in there; I had a buckskin jacket, long hair, whatever I was wearing…or what I wore in those days.  And I mean, they would look at me.  I would go into a bank meeting and some cocky little banker would say, “I saw you dressed for the occasion, Mr. Farr.” (laughs)  And I would say, “I’ve come to visit my money.  How’s it doing?”

(pause – phone alert)  Wow.  Won another award.  I love it when it does that. (laughs)

And I would say, “I’ve come to visit my money. I wanted to see how well you’re doing with it.  And if you make another comment about my dress, I will insist that you dress like me the next time I come to a meeting, or I will take my money away.”

I was cocky and arrogant, because you know what?  I was sick and tired of class distinction that was in England.  And you know, after the war, the country was so green and grey – I was born during the war – and everything was so drab, and the residual of the war had left the country colorless.

D.S.: I lived there in ‘68 and ‘69.  And yes, it was still…

R.F.: In the sixties, we started Carnaby Street, the Marquee…

D.S.: It was coming alive.

R.F.: …yeah, the Court Eddie Club, the Rikki Tick…I had clubs all over.  And we were johnny [?]  working class young men, the exception being Pink Floyd, because they were out of Cambridge.  The Stones were sort of working middle class, although Mick was at the London School of Economics. But generally, it was young, working class guys looking to make a name for themselves, and music – especially listening to American rhythm and blues, like the music coming over on Chess, Checkers, Jazz Select, ATCO, all those great (labels), the early Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry…all of that music, the early music…Everly Brothers were a huge influence on the Beatles, for instance, with harmonies.

And you know, I had these clubs, and I was playing that music.  People, young people, were listening to it and going to… like Chris Blackwell, who owned Island Records, and young Richard Branson, who, of course worked there.  That’s how he started his mail order Virgin Records, he was importing these records and started selling them. And that’s how he started his empire.

D.S.: I actually own the – when he got rich off of “Tubular Bells”?

R.F.: Yeah.  Mike Oldfield?

D.S.: He ordered the largest Helios console ever made?

R.F.: Right.

D.S.: I own it. Got it in storage, but I own it.

R.F.: Really?

D.S.: Yeah.  Sir Richard sold it to a guy I met and I bought it from him.

R.F.: Oh, my goodness. Because we used to have the Manor recording track.

D.S.: Right. Wait – you had it?  Or Sir Richard had it?

R.F.: Well he had it, but I used to use it at a place called the Roundhouse.

D.S.: Oh.  What years did you used to run the Roundhouse?

R.F.: Well, it was Ian Knight, myself, a whole bunch of us were involved.  I was bringing over the Jefferson Airplane, the Doors…

D.S.: So – late sixties?

 R.F.: Late sixties, yeah.  And I was bringing over artists for tours.  We had then, Little Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett…oh God, we had so many…Clarence Walker…I had a lot of different rhythm and blues artists coming over, and I’d put them in the clubs and do certain town halls with them, and of course, they’d end up at the Roundhouse on a Sunday afternoon.

D.S.: Mmm-hmm.  That became an institution, right?  I mean, the Roundhouse gigs went on for many years.

R.F.: Yeah.

D.S.: A lot of the early punk stuff started there…

R.F.: Absolutely.  We had the Sex Pistols there.  We had the Clash, we had the Damned…

D.S.: I have a friend who played there with the Clash.

R.F.: The Clash? One of my favorite bands of all time, and some of the nicest people.  But..yeah, it’s funny, when you start talking about these things, and you wonder: how did you compress all of this – from working in the early days with the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and Louie Armstrong – to Nirvana, the Beastie Boys, and everything in between you know?  It’s been such an accelerated period of contemporary music and writing the like of which we – I won’t see again in my lifetime.  It’s cyclical, so I’m sure there’ll be another era when…

D.S.:  But that gets to…the question that I most have, looking through your videos… I have a lot of friends who were, you know, your age – who were musicians.  They were in London, they were here, they were in New York – and then I came along a bit later, I was in the punk era.  I see it as – the sixties happened.  There was one  discrete echo of the sixties, which was the punk era.

R.F.: Sure.

D.S.: And that lasted 4-5 years, and it’s been downhill since, in a way.

R.F.: Yeah.

D.S.: Do you have any understanding? Because, you’re not a player, right?  The rest of the people I know are players.  I’m a player.

R.F.: Well, I’m a very, very very bad drummer! (laughs)

D.S.: OK, good!  Standing outside, looking in – booking the shows – do you have any understanding of what happened in that period in the late sixties?  Why the writing was so dynamic?  The music was so amazing?  Look what happened to jazz in the late sixties, you know? I mean, Miles met Joe Zawinul, and BAM!  They both went off in those directions.  What I’m trying to figure out – what happened? 

R.F.: I don’t think there’s a single answer to that, and I think it’s a very good question. There’s no quick off the hip answer, but I think music – and this may sound a little Gaelic, but I don’t care – but music is tribal.  If you look throughout history, there were musical tribes.  And it wasn’t just music.  It was comedy. Out of Cambridge, there was Private Eye, Lenny Bruce was red hot, David Frost…

D.S.: So, the culture of tribes, you’re saying?

R.F.:  Yeah, yeah.  To me, it was very tribal and distinctly from various areas.  And if you look down from Muscle Shoals to Liverpool to Birmingham, there were pockets of areas, geographically, where you can actually pinpoint: they came from here, here and there.

D.S.:  Liverpool and its access to American recordings played a big part in the Beatles.  Huge, huge. 

R.F.:  Because you have to remember, before there was the Beatles, there was the Downliner Sect…the very first, who was kind of not on the radar until they had a hit, was Manfred Mann.  He was around for a long time.

D.S.:  What did you say, the Downline..?

R.F.:  Downliner Sect.  They were, in a sense, a band that was playing a combination of traditional and modern jazz influences, but immediately early on latched onto the blues.  And they were a band that the Stones looked at, and the Stones would support in the Cellar Club of London, 52 Room, places like that.  And King Collier’s the allnighter, where people could listen to jazz all night; it was a place to sleep because you could lay down on the floors and sleep, wake up, have a coffee or Coca-Cola and listen to music…it was a place for people who didn’t want to go home – all the buses and trains had stopped.  So there were these all nighters, and I used to put on a lot of these all nighters.  Basically, they were crash pads for people who would listen to music, dance…

Drugs really wasn’t a part of that.  There was some hashish floating around in those days.  Some people would go up to Wellon Garden City and get some Purple Hearts. That was Keith Moon’s favorite pill of choice! (laughs) It’s an upper.

D.S.: Oh!  I’ve never heard that term, “Purple Hearts.”

R.F.: Yes, it’s a little purple pill.  I think they made them for soldiers to wake them up before they went into battle, or something like that.  But you had to go up to Wellon Garden City to the back door of the manufacturer’s.  It was so tame compared to the cynicism of what goes on today.

And people were listening to music, mainly from America…

D.S.: When are you talking about?  The fifties?

R.F.:  I’m talking the sixties.

D.S.: Ok.

R.F.:  You know, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry…even some of the early blues players – I had Howlin’ Wolf come over…

D.S.: Where did you have him play?

R.F.:  I had him at the Marquee.

D.S.:  So, what years did you manage the Marquee?

R.F.: Well, I wasn’t the manager.  The Marquee was owned by Harold Pendleton, Chris Barber, and Kenny Ball, who were two jazz players, and the promoter of the Redding Jazz Festival.  Business was falling down, and I had started putting on concerts, like the early Beatles.  I was putting on concerts everywhere.

D.S.:  The Beatles when they were the Silver Beatles, right?  Before Brian Epstein?

R.F.: That’s before Brian. Brian was over the road at NEMS, which was his furniture store. And Brian had a little corner there, which was where he was selling imported records.

D.S.: Well, you know, the story is famous.

R.F.: Well, I only know – I live in a bubble, so..(laughs) Anyway, so Brian came over, saw the lads.  There were a lot of bands in Liverpool at the time.  Johnny B. Great, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, which Ringo was playing in…

D.S.: Right.  So when Ringo was with Rory Storm, that’s the period you were promoting the Beatles shows?

R.F.: Well, I met John in Hamburg in the sixties.

R.F.: (to unnamed female) What was the name of that club we went to?  My memory…

U.F.: The one in Hamburg?  Is it Kaiser Keller?

R.F.: Kaiser Keller. That’s right.

D.S.: Oh yeah.  Very famously parodied in “Spinal Tap”.

R.F.: Right.  Which I did all of the audio for.  The production.  I worked on “Spinal Tap”.

D.S.: So about your chance meeting with John Lennon, and how it pushed you to become involved in music.  Do you think you would have ended up as a show promoter if you hadn’t met Lennon?

R.F.: No. I was really fascinated with Sean Kenney at the Brighton College Bar [?].  Sean Kenney was a great Set Director.  And he was a great theatrical director using new geometric designs.  He was a Renaissance Set Director and I was fascinated by lighting and set direction.  And that’s been one of the pleasures of my work – being involved with the development of the sets for the artists – not just the audio.

D.S.: Now – you’re trained as an actor?— Or you did some training as an actor?

R.F.: What happened was – we didn’t find out until later – there were a whole set of young people who were growing their hair long, listening to music, going out all night, wearing, in a British point of view, outrageously colorful clothes…and I was not one of them, but I sort of became the Leader of the Pack.

D.S.:  And that was where?

R.F.: This was down in Brighton, Hough, and London, and a little bit..anywhere around the south coast.

D.S.:  Around the school, or..?

R.F.: Well, Brighton College of Art, was, of course, where Barbara Hill McKee [?], very famous designers, great fashion designers, Beepers, the whole Mary Quant, that kind of thing, came from. I was a terrible student, but what I did do – I started putting on the dances.  So I became, for lack of a better word, the student social director, but I never saw myself like that.

I was busy going up north on the trawlers, making a lot of money as a deckie boy on the trawlers.  I had a sports car, I had a beautiful apartment, I had lots of money in my pocket.  So any chance I had, I’d go to Hough or Grimsby and sign on with a trawler, because it was pretty dangerous work.

D.S.:  What were they fishing for?

R.F.:  They were fishing for cod, haddock, and turbot.  We would go out to the north, to Icelandic waters, Greenland…and it got pretty wild.  I was in a few major storms, and I wondered if I was ever going to see light again…

D.S.:  And now, you live here! (laughs)

R.F.: Right – but it was great coming off the boat, and chopping up ice blocks and laying them flat so the fish wouldn’t bruise, and having waves crashing over, and sort of being in a locker that was about the size of a coffin so you didn’t roll around…you know, and being with some of the hardiest, toughest men in the world. They really are tough.  And I would come back down with a pocket full of money and I would go back.  But I would have enough money to put on a show.

I remember at Brighton College of Art, I put on the seating – you call them trash bins here?  In England, they call them dust bins.  I put a dust man’s ball on, where I had all these dust bins hanging upside down on cables, with all the trash falling out, with lights inside it.  We’d be flashing the lights while the trash was falling out.  And this was a dance.  We put on dances.

 D.S: What was your motivation?  Money? Fun?

R.F.: Fun.  Fun… I mean, I should be a billionaire, if I’d really done things for money.  I’d probably be knighted by the Queen for all of the concerts I’ve put on, you know, for Bangladesh and the concert at the Oval, Hello Summer…some of the guys that have worked for me have gone on to become knighted for their work.  Once I moved to America, they carried on.  And that’s great.  Knighthood was not something that I’ve been looking for, frankly. (laughs).

D.S.:  I don’t think anybody was.

R.F.: No, no.  And my father, who was a great champion, he got an MBE, because they don’t knight boxers, even though he had a most memorable fight with Joe Louis…

D.S.:  Really?

R.F.: …in 1937, in Yankee Stadium.  For the world title.  15 rounds. And the King gave him the MBE.  They knight jockeys, but not boxers. (laughs) Even though boxing was founded by Marquess of Queensbury. … So, yeah. They knight jockeys, but not boxers. [Farr-Louis bout can be seen here.-Ed.]

Look, when I followed John, I ended up in Hamburg, this was in September. I’d come from Denmark, where I’d been working, and I didn’t have a work permit, so had to skidoodle quickly.  But I had very little money in my pocket, so I’d got to Hamburg in the middle of the night by ferry.  I was standing on a street corner, and in those days – they still do sometimes, they have a [German term for a food stall?].  I was going to have a chili dog and figure out where I was going to sleep: either at the YMCA or the Seamen’s Mission; I had enough money for that.

And I’d been in trouble in England for fighting.  My father, being the heavyweight (champ) – at every pub, there’s always a lout who wants to put skin for the beer and get a notch on his belt, going, “Ahhr, I beat on Tommy Farr’s son!”  So I was always like – and I had my brother with me, and he was young, but tough.  Gary.

And one time, these taxi drivers came in and they were just so insulting, so rude, and so drunk, that I lost it.  Went over the top, as they say.  And if it hadn’t been 5 to 1 – and we wound up in front of a judge who knew my father – thank God.

And I was up for causing grievous bodily harm.  Well, I was defending myself.  I took a barstool and went crazy.  I defended my family name and defended my father, who I love, and was a great man, and I didn’t need a bunch of drunk taxi drivers calling him all sorts of names – ‘cause they’d never say them to his face.

D.S.: Of course.

R.F.: So anyway, the judge says, “You go into the army or go back to your father.”  So I said I’d go back to my father.  My father was amazing.  He said, “Frankly, if that were me and they hadn’t torn me away, they wouldn’t be alive.” The mining village where he came from?  They wouldn’t be alive. He gave me some money and a passport and I took off to Sweden, because that’s where the pretty girls were.  And I had a great time in Sweden.  Started a business there, and it was quite successful.  Then I moved down to Denmark, which I fell in love with.  I went down there to listen to the early jazz they had there, Joe Morello on drums…got a job at a bar but didn’t have a work permit.  So someone who wanted a job there ratted me out. So I got on the ferry to Hamburg.

So I’m standing on a street corner, it was raining, wherever it was, with about 10 DM to my name.  I bought a chili dog from the cart, and I’m standing there, and all of a sudden a voice behind me goes [in John Lennon’s voice] , “Oh, I know you. You’re the boxer’s boy. You were in the newspapers. You were in trouble.”

I turn around, thinking here we go again – and it’s him. John.

D.S.: Bless your heart. [looking at photo on wall]  Nice picture, by the way.

R.F.: Yeah, thank you.

D.S.: And this is with Pete Best, and…

R.F.: …and Stu.

D.S. Were they backing Tony Sheridan?

R.F.: Yes.  That was the Kaiser Keller.  And we sat at the bus shelter, because it was raining.  I went there – we filmed there, recently.  Nothing’s changed at the bus shelter except they don’t have the cars.  They’ve put some sort of parking area…

So we sat at the bus shelter and we chatted, and he says, “Come over to the club.” I went down there, and the drunken sailors, the prostitutes, the cheap perfume, the beer…and just the wonderful, insidious music coming out of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, and all renditions of that, I just fell in love.  I just knew right away that in this wonderful decadence, that there was something…there was joy.

D.S.:  And was Stu the bass player then?

R.F.: Yes.

D.S.: And how long were you there?

R.F.: I was there for – I stayed for 4 days, because I wanted to go down to Pamplona with my brother..that was another amazing story! (laughs)

So we ended up down by the docks, in Pedev [?] and I still had my Brighton College card, which I used remorselessly (laughs) even for semi begging.  [Asks for aid to students in German] I learned to speak the language, I’d help them park their cars, or do something, and I’d get tips.  That card fed Gary and I many times.

So we somehow convinced the Catholic Church there that we were artists, and we had ideas for great art.  And they wanted to decide if this was true.

D.S.: Well, you knew kids in art school!

R.F.: Well, yeah.  But I was totally into Georges Braque and Modigliani, and Mondrian.  I loved Mondrian.  So we had them set up this scaffolding, because there was this huge wall.  And we said that we would paint this contemporary…so there was this young guy, I remember: Pito. Pito took us to this store where we bought all this paint, and the church paid for it, we got scaffolding.  We were young and blond, and stripped to the waist, and the young Catholic girls would be coming by and we’d be having the time of our life. In fact, we ended up living above a brothel down by the docks.

D.S.: Oh, those were innocent days.

R.F.: Well, the beauty of the bar was, you’d get into this – almost like a harness, with leather straps.  And you’d get into this barrel and drink the vino verde, and there was sawdust on the floor, so you’d drink until you’d throw up and have to clean up, and you’d just be swing in these (laughs) ..it’s just – and we’d have what I’d call, tapas.

Anyway, we painted this thing, and I was sort of ripping off Mondrian and Braque, and we put the dove with the peace and the halo, and Christ…and it really turned out great.  And people wondered – I remember, one Sunday, we were nearly finished, and everyone in the church was loving it, and I remember on Sunday, we got one of those strange monsignors.  And we thought we’d finish it on Monday and get out of there. I’d planned to hitchhike and get a boat back up to Liverpool.

And all of a sudden, Pito comes running in, “You die! You die! You die! They kill you!  They kill you!” Well, my brother and I are pulling our pants on, because it’s Sunday in a brothel – what do you do?  So, we’re getting our clothes on and he goes, “No, no, no, quick, quick, quick!” So Gary and I decide, “You go this way, I’ll go that way.” So Gary got to the docks and onto a boat called the SS Cave [?].   Had a German skipper.  And he used to sail between the Canary Islands for pineapple and copper [inaudible]. So Gary got [inaudible] and hid there.  I took off and I just remember I went into this tiny cafe that had these foul toilets, and I went into one of those toilets and just stayed there.  Locked the door and just stayed in that toilet.

D.S.: Who was after you?

R.F.: They were after me because, what we didn’t know, was that the paint that they’d sold us was water based.  When the rains came, the whole art piece came washing down the wall.  So they thought we were..and then when they heard we were at a brothel…we were just bad dudes.

So with Gary, the German boat took off and sailed to Tahiti.  And Gary stayed on it.  That’s the boat that eventually got converted for Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty.  They used it for the Bounty.  They converted it.  I got out and met the boys, and put on some shows…

[Part 2 of Dan Schwartz’s conversation with Rikki Farr will appear in the next issue of Copper. Thanks so much to Rikki, and special thanks to Christine McKibban at Riva Audio and Jim Noyd of Noyd Communications for arranging Dan’s chat with Rikki.–-Ed.]