I’m serious when I tell you this stuff keeps me up at night. The following recounting of musical experiences and personal reference points is not meant to be a boastful muscle-flexing exercise to shout, “look at me!” but more a measured outpouring of my musical journey, and for others to see the origin of my obsessions and learn about what makes me tick. Whatever we do as a job or hobby will always stir emotion if done for any length, along with an “I wouldn’t do it like that” mentality, and possibly an “I can do it better” attitude, by virtue of our own badge of honor gained from hours spent woodshedding.
If you are exposed to a sound repeatedly for months, and in my case decades, then the brain creates a neural pathway of the experience which, when re-triggered through music listening sessions, can ignite and fire up the neurons which go off like firecrackers in your head, constantly measuring the current experience of music against previous memories in some sort of aural war of notes. This can be both a blessing and a curse. I have exacting memories of my experiences of playing the violin from age eight (and took grades in), and of playing electric and acoustic guitar (which I’ve played daily for over 40 years), drums, (which I have played in an international touring situation). I can also relate to the sound of grand pianos and Hammond organs, which I have sat within three feet of for decades. All of this has profoundly rubbed off and helped to create the demons in my head.
I like to hear the texture and grittiness of the bow on a violin; when a bow has rosin applied to it, the horsehair touches the string in a tactile way and has very specific tone and resonance characteristics. This sound is presented differently when listening in an audience, versus how you hear the sound in your head – literally – when your chin is in contact with the violin’s chin rest and your head becomes a resonant chamber as a result. You hear body, a midrange texture, with a grittiness and smooth, sweet highs. The wood of the body of the instrument also takes center stage.
The guitar has been a lifeboat for me. It’s been there for me through the very worst of times, and my guitar was and still is an extension of my inner self. When I first heard Jimi Hendrix’s blinding technique and tone it drew me to wanting to hear more of that through and behind the hi-fi speaker, as a sort of window to another world so to speak, and to create an almost palpable belief that the artist (any artist, not just Hendrix) is electronically connected and imparting energy into the cone of the speaker driver.
I like a holographic soundstage with instruments placed in air, floating if you will; but when hearing an electric guitar in particular, I want to get a sense of the visceral impact onto the paper of the guitar amp’s 12-inch driver (most guitar amps use 12-inch or multiple 12-inch speakers). When a child and learning guitar, I remember the tactile feel of touching the guitar amplifier’s speaker cone after striking the string, and seeing the diaphragm move with the lower notes when the guitar strings were struck with force. When I hear Hendrix or Beck or Page the feel I like is for the guitar to be projecting through the driver as it closely replicates the feeling of hearing the guitar through an amp.
When you stand to the side of an amp and play, the tone you hear is different to what you hear out front of the amplifier (or speaker cabinet, in the case of a separate amp head and cabinet rig). The room gives a chance for the speaker cone to breathe and let go of lots of frequencies. Yet there are many variables. Is the cabinet close-backed or open-backed? Would that speaker benefit from a beam-blocker in front of it to cancel out high frequencies? These factors will make a difference as to how the driver will perform, not to mention where the mic is placed, and what kind of mic is used, if the amplifier/speaker is mic’d for live or recorded sound. Turning an open-backed cabinet around and miking up from the rear takes away harsh edgy sounds when going through a PA.
When striking a string and playing in a state where everything is simply flowing, this is the pinnacle of connecting with music. I’m not saying this to boast, I’m mentioning it because I know many musicians can relate to this if they have been playing in the moment and allowing the music to flow. Many times I’ve played something for the first time in an improv situation and been floored at what comes out when listening back to the recording. I have obsessed for endless hours about the differences between alnico and ceramic magnets in speakers, high-end vs. standard cables, alnico 3 vs alnico 5 magnets in guitar pickups, germanium vs. silicon transistors in old fuzz pedals, flatwound vs. roundwound strings, alder vs. ash wood in bodies, the difference between maple and rosewood fingerboards, or nickel vs. stainless steel frets, and the list goes on and on. All of these have things can have audible differences, and after a lifetime of comparisons, in addition to all the experiences of hearing live music, I have a multitude of sonic reference points in my heart and soul. They make for a heady combination, and a high bar to attain if I am to truly enjoy reproduced music as I hear it in my head.
I’m not always entirely convinced of the reality when hearing recorded music. When I record some guitar in a recording studio booth and listen back to it in a control room, the feeling is watered down, and a facsimile has been created that most of the time, does not contain the same intent or emotion to truly feel the emotional connection over repeated plays. The ideal of an audio system should be to enable the listener to receive the spirit of the player through the conduit of technology.
Kick (bass) drums sound completely different when you hear the head being struck with a beater on a pedal when you push it with your own foot, as opposed to listening to the recorded sound. Did the engineer mic up the front head or the back head? Did the drum have a hole cut in the head and was the mic placed outside or inside the hole? Were two mics used to get a mix of the beater’s attack and the resonance of the shell? I like to feel the kick sound as tactile and visceral as possible, and when the engineer has done his job and it’s recorded that way, then that’s where I get juicy feelings and start to engage.
I have experienced something truly magical lately with my hi-fi journey. The Tribute passive preamplifier has become my comfort blanket, and is a keeper, especially when listening to certain types of music such as ECM label artists, in particular Mathias Eick, and the Alboran Trio. My Audio Detail Chela tube preamplifier has been a complete revelation, and after a couple of sleepless nights resulting from an overload of musical yumminess it has forced my hand into writing this collection of words. I’ve never heard solo violin replicated so authentically as I have with the Tribute and Audio Detail combination. it’s truly a revelation and has provided many shakings of the head and “is this for real?” moments recently.
I have been truly blessed in my hi-fi journey, which started as a teenager. For my 18th birthday, my father bought me my first stereo system, which consisted of Mission 707 speakers, a Yamaha integrated amplifier and CD player, and a Dual 505 turntable on a Target Audio Products rack, and this was a stepping stone to all of the following levels I’ve passed through. When I returned to hi-fi in 2014 after a break, I bought a Linn LP12 and upgraded it to a high standard, I had Exposure electronics, Neat Speakers and Chord cables. I have a great group of friends who feed my passion in recording music, in playing and listening to live music, and in the search for hi-fi gear. I have discovered Lampizator DACs, made in Poland, and my UK dealer Greg at G Point Audio has helped me along with his portfolio of products that has really scratched my itch. My latest acquisition has been my hORNS FP15 MK 2 speakers, delivered just before last Christmas, and these have been a true revelation.
However hard I try, I cannot separate the musical experiences I have had, coupled with my strong and opinionated approach to recorded music, songwriting, playing and production, and in particular, listening to guitar players and singers, from my opinions about hi-fi gear.
I’m sure you get the idea of how much music means to me when I sit down in a listening chair. Being as passionate about it as I am, I could certainly be much stronger in my distaste for certain guitar players or singers, especially when I hear a poorly-executed and not-human-like vibrato. Then my head goes off like a firecracker with thoughts like, “slow it down.” “Where’s the feeling in that phrase?” “Fewer notes for god’s sake!” “Your high-hat pattern was straight out of Play in a Day, Book One,” etc. etc., but I always try to remain respectful. The emotional and monetary investment in a high-end audio system is worth it when it provides an almost metaphysical experience. It makes the hours and hours of searching for the answer to the equations that sometimes don’t add up when pursuing audio gear seem worth it.
I have even thought many times about seeking psychotherapy, to calm my head and thoughts and quiet my spirit, but I feel that this would negatively affect the “sensitivity control” of my brain’s receptors, and I want to allow the true spirit of music to ignite my senses when the reproduction of the music is done correctly. As an aside, I have heard more and more music via the ECM Records label that truly engages my heart, and not my hands in reaching for the score card paddles as would happen in judging a dance competition.
Music is a truly wonderful thing and every single track will appear like a snowflake to the multitudes who hear it. We all hear differently, and we will all hopefully finish a listening session having being transported to a special world where the extremes of its beauty cause us to stop and become awestruck.
Wherever you are in your journey in hi-fi, just remember that when you stream that track or purchase that download, or take delivery of that vinyl record or CD, remember the artist and what it took to bring you that piece of recorded work. Then grab your favorite drink, kick off your shoes, and embrace the moment.
About Craig Evans
I worked in print and media for 35 years and around 10 years became a foster caregiver. I studied at art college and in the last few years have returned to fine art, and even had a solo exhibition, a huge thrill.
My hi-fi journey started as a young teen when I heard my friend’s father’s system, which was a BSR turntable, a Teleton amp, and Wharfedale speakers. My father bought me my first system when I was 18, which consisted of a Dual turntable, Yamaha electronics and Mission 707 speakers.
My love of music and guitar playing has been a constant in my life since the age of 12, and both have bought me great joy. I became close friends with Australian guitarist Gwyn Ashton in 1997 and have toured with him throughout Europe as a tech, and sat in with him a few times. I have enjoyed helping Gwyn build guitars for the road. We’ve had endless hours of shootouts and comparisons with guitars, pickups, pedals, cables, amps, speakers, and just many years of fun.
I have a few close friends who share my passion for hi-fi, and enjoy connecting with like-minded folk. Life has had its twists and turns, but holding fast to the people I love and keeping my hobbies and interests as part of my day-to-day gets me through. Thank you for taking time out to read about my journey, and I wish you all a very happy, peaceful and fun-filled life.
Header image: Craig Evans, circa 1985.