Over here in the UK there is a common phrase heard that “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” That may well be true for some. Yet, something that is truly significant for all of us, is where we live. This is determined by so many factors and we do our best with whatever restraints have been imposed upon us, and exercise our permissible freedoms when and where we can.
We attribute relative value to the location of where our home is. Sometimes you hear it said by realtors that the three most important things to consider when buying or renting a property are location, location and…you guessed it, location.
And this holds true to a large degree in our home hi-fi set ups. The location of where we seat ourselves and set up our speakers can have a profound effect on our listening experience and the value we place on what we hear. For me, listening to music is like spending time with life-long friends and enjoying their company. The transportive effect is like going home, or to familiar places, ones that we are able to summon up and touch base with in a reassuring way. Perhaps this is more important than ever before for our well-being and mental stimulation.
To that end, given that we as individuals are more localised than ever before because of pandemic restrictions, I have set about reappraising my hi-fi system. The intention is to really get the best out of what it has to offer and liberate it by adjusting acoustics here and there, tweaking tweeters, badgering my bass and cajoling connections to optimal effect. Yes, it’s true that speaker positioning and location are just a component part of the acoustic presentation, but here we have some scope for control and tailoring our tone that can be truly rewarding to us as active listeners rather than simply passive hearers. Let’s make our music captivating, enthralling and more engaging.
Now before I pay heed to the complaints that “I just don’t have any room to play with,” or, “my speakers can’t go anywhere else,” both of which I completely sympathise with, let’s ask ourselves a few questions.
When was the last time you read the speaker manufacturer’s recommended positioning instructions in their manual? Be honest now. Was it…never? You may be more conscientious than I’m giving you credit for, and for that I apologise, (like a Brit). But the reason I mention this, is simply that you may be pleasantly surprised by what you read. I say maybe because perhaps their recommendations may compound some of the restrictions you have to work with if the recommendations suggest you place the speakers yet further into the room.
On the other hand, the opposite may be true. It may be the case that it actually gives you the opportunity to improve your soundstage, and/or open the room to achieve a fuller sonic presentation and overall better result, if the manual suggests your speakers are more optimally designed to be placed closer to the rear wall and/or closer to each other than they currently are. Find out for certain. And you may have more flexibility than you thought.
Often one of the limitations of speaker placement is their footprint. After all, speakers have to occupy physical spots on the ground. Speaking of the ground, is it the case that your speakers are the type that should be stand-mounted but are literally placed on the floor? This may seem like an extreme example to Copper readers but I’ve seen it. If you or a significant other insist they have to be on the floor, (or you want to keep pets from knocking the speakers over), will they take spikes? This may allow you to adjust the angle and tip the speaker back a few degrees, allowing the drivers and especially the tweeter to direct the sound upwards toward the spot where you listen rather than into the sofa.
Speakers that are designed to be placed on stands really should be, though. This literally puts them on a pedestal and transforms their projection into something close to, or how the speaker designer intended them to be used. Granted, you may have to take into account a slightly larger footprint for the base of the stand, but sometimes the footprint may in fact be smaller. A tip which is known to veteran audiophiles but may be new to others is that many speaker’s stands can be mass-loaded, meaning, filled with an appropriate medium such as sand or a dedicated product like Atacama Atabites. In addition to the fact that you may find the stand and speakers are physically more stable than before, your bass response should be tighter. Making the stands sturdier will result in less speaker cabinet vibration and resonance along with improved definition of musical details. You could call it a more “planted” or “reinforced” sound.
If your speakers are floorstanding towers, do you find that the tweeter height is not at the same height as your ear level? (Meaning, the height of your ears above the floor.) If not, can you adjust the height of your speaker to more accurately match the height of your ears when you are sitting in your primary listening seat? Most towers have a degree of height adjustment, which may help improve the on-axis signal directivity toward your chosen listening position.
When looking around hi-fi stores with the plan of listening to, and potentially purchasing new speakers, I have found it surprising how many floorstanding speakers simply don’t design for the tweeter to be at ear level – or even close to it. We are all physically different, but the design brief for some of these models may more readily account for aesthetics and visual appeal over sonic perfection, or manufacturing budget restraints as opposed to achieving the best high-frequency directivity possible. Being conscious of this means we can accommodate for it to some degree and if we own such a speaker, hopefully minimise the compromise in design.
Do you own a multichannel home theater or music system? If so, the placement of the surround speakers shouldn’t be an afterthought. If possible, and you’re not restricted to putting the surround speakers on stands or elsewhere, it’s advantageous to mount the speakers on the wall, two or three feet above your listening position. Doing this can help to reduce the localising effect of the sound and make for a more immersive and natural listening experience. You have the added bonus of opening up more floor space and getting around your room more easily without bumping into your coffee table or treading on poor Fido’s tail yet again.
It’s good to have a goal. What are you hoping to achieve from your audio system? To help answer that question it may be good to reflect on the type of sound you know you like to hear. What are your tastes in music and what will most sympathetically lend itself to enhancing those characteristics? Do you love a flatter tone for jazz, a mid-scooped tone for rock and metal, a super dynamic range for orchestral music or perhaps a vocal richness in your singer songwriter albums? Think of these tonal characteristics simply as a reference point for your future EQ shaping.
Perfect “accuracy” or “neutrality” in sonic reproduction may not be your goal because of what you prefer to hear. When I was younger, I personally had a penchant for a brighter and more trebly tone, which was not to everyone’s taste. As I got older, I appreciated more warmth and rounded out midrange while keeping undesirable boxiness at bay. Although we don’t possess the sound engineer’s actual ears, we do have our own personal preferences and tonal tastes.
Rather than being lost at sea, crystallising your references by identifying what you like in specific recordings will really help you in establishing your sonic bearings and the direction you want to go. You then have something to aim for when improving your sound rather than blindly making adjustments to “optimise” your tone in the hope of overall betterment. There’s a lot you can do to EQ your sound. And remember, the speaker designer has already done a lot of this work for you.
In our next installment we’ll look more at how we can best set up our speaker locations and make them “disappear” sonically. As long as we’re somewhat or largely confined to our homes these days, let’s maximise our opportunity to get the most out of our music listening.
Header image courtesy of Audio Den.
As most audiophiles and readers of this magazine are aware, the subject of audio cables can be fraught with opinions, information, misinformation, heated discussions on forums and more. From time to time, Copper has run articles about cables and will continue to do so.
In Issues 48, 49 and 50, Galen Gareis of ICONOCLAST cables and Belden Inc., and Gautam Raja wrote a series of articles on the importance of time-domain behavior and how it affects the sound and performance of audio cables. In this series, Galen expands upon the subject and takes a deep dive into a critical but not often discussed aspect of cable design: the velocity of propagation (Vp) of audio signals.
Audio speaker and interconnect (IC) cables all have an Achilles’ heel that must be directly addressed. However, it is often completely ignored.
The performance of audio cables is more about the time-domain dependency of the signal through the audio band than on the factors of simple attenuation, resistance, or the concept that we just need to achieve low resistance, capacitance and inductance to design a good cable.
Also, while it might seem theoretically ideal, we can’t allow cable capacitance or inductance to simply go “as low as we can design it” without balancing the cable’s non-linear velocity of propagation through the audio frequency range.
The key concept here is that the velocity of propagation (Vp) is different for different frequencies in the audio range, and this will affect cable performance.
For example, if the upper-midrange and high frequencies arrive at the speaker (and your ears) faster than the lower frequencies, the timing of the music will literally be off, as well as the relationship between the fundamental frequencies and the overtones. The cable may sound too bright or too dull.
What changes are happening when we consider the velocity of propagation differential and what can we do to take it into account in our designing a cable? Each frequency will arrive at a different time at the end of the cable. Harmonics are tightly connected to the fundamental tone, and time based distortion of a sufficient magnitude will alter how we hear musical tones, a tone being a fundamental plus the harmonics.
Fundamental Factors In Cable Behavior
The math behind the non-linearity of the velocity of propagation isn’t new. In fact, Belden explored the issue as far back as 1974 and 1984 in their in-house publication Belden Innovators SPRING magazine articles (available upon request). However, in practice what we need to know and to measure is seldom used to fully optimize an audio cable’s performance. Two cables with the exact same bulk resistance, inductance and capacitance (R, L and C) can sound decidedly different based on the Vp management used in their designs.
The graphs below are for a specific cable resistance, inductance and capacitance (R, L and C). The fundamental shape and curve of the traces are universal for low frequency cables that handle the audio band which is electrically low in frequency. The exact values along both traces will vary based on a cable’s particular design parameters, but all low audio and low frequency cables are affected in the same manner by how the physics shapes the general data.
The plots show the cable’s Velocity Factor (Vp) percent and Impedance (Zo). (The two papers from which these graphs are derived are also available.)
Notice that the two sets of fundamental traces, from two independent sources, are the same. The top set is calculated and the bottom set is empirically measured cable data. No matter what passive cable we test through the low frequencies, the shape of the curves will be a like pattern.
http://web.mst.edu/~kosbar/ee3430/ff/transmissionlines/z0/index.html (The link has expired; I have the paper.)
The above two separate sources for velocity non-linearity show the exact same cable properties for impedance at low frequencies. Impedance goes up, considerably, as Vp goes down.
You can’t escape Vp non-linearity through the audio band and the rise in impedance it causes. Physics isn’t on our side.
Another point to consider is that an audio cable isn’t a transmission line, which is a cable designed to carry and accommodate electromagnetic (EM) waves in a contained manner. These cables operate over large electrical distances with minimum losses and distortion.
At audio frequencies the wavelengths are too long and won’t “fit” inside a cable’s length. Even if we wanted to accommodate just one full wave period, the wavelength is too long in the low-frequency range we call audio. For example, in free space a 20 kHz wavelength is 14,989 meters long;
λ = C/f
λ (Lambda) = Wavelength in meters
c = speed of light (299,792,458 m/s)
f = Frequency
In an audio cable it is fore-shortened by the Vp of the dielectric which is around 50% at 20 kHz, but we are still looking at a long wavelength; 7,494.8 meters or 24,588 feet.
λ = (0.5)*( 299,792,458 m/s)/ 20,000 Hz = 7,494.8 meters
Ideally, we need a cable of at least ten wavelengths to reach a stable TEM (transverse electromagnetic wave) situation. In a true TEM wave, the signal is trapped between the inner surface of the shield and outer surface of the center conductor and inside the dielectric in a coaxial cable. In a twisted pair it is trapped between the inner surface of the two wires and also in the dielectric. Since a twisted pair has a higher loop DCR (Direct Current Resistance) component than a coaxial cable with a like-sized center wire, the twisted pair attenuation is higher. Twisted pair noise immunity can be improved in a true balanced circuit using CMRR, Common Mode Rejection Ratio, a configuration where the noise is subtracted out from the signal. What is common to both wires is the noise, hence the term CMRR.
However, I will never adhere to the supposition that we have true TEM function-type reflections in audio cable, unlike where impedance is matched to a load, like an RF cable. Impedance isn’t and can’t be matched in the audio frequency range and we’ll see why in this series. (We’ll also see why RF cables aren’t ideally matched, either, even at the exact same value as a load resistor.)
In order to understand what’s happening in audio cable we need to understand why RF cable has some decided advantages over audio when it comes to system matching (in RF applications). The velocity, or speed, of the TEM wave trapped inside the wire either between two wires (twisted pair), or between a wire and a shield (coaxial cable) is a constant at RF. It does not fundamentally change with frequency. I say “fundamentally” because some will say if it changes any amount at all it “matters.” (OK, I’ll give the perfectionists among you +/- a few percent.)
There are several methods to calculate or measure RF impedance. Don’t try any of this at audio frequencies or even below 1 MHz. 1 MHz isn’t truly reaching the impedance asymptotic stability level.
The following method is known as the ratio method. Here we can look at a known cable’s impedance that we feel is accurately reported under test correctly. We can take the ratio of the center wire diameter to inner shield diameter (the dielectric’s diameter), and use that to design a cable with a larger diameter or even determine what its impedance will be when compared to known ratios. This works for twisted pairs, too, since we look at each insulated wire as a coaxial cable, but with both placed two in parallel. For example, two 50-ohm coaxial lines in parallel double the center to center distance so we have less capacitance and a higher 100-ohm impedance, for instance.
We need to make sure that the dielectric velocity of propagation is the same, however, or this won’t work. The speed of the electromagnetic wave is also changing the impedance of the cable in the calculations and ratio measurement.
|9110 RG59 75-ohm||9118 RG6 75-ohms|
|CENTER WIRE||0.032 20 AWG||0.040” 18 AWG|
If I match the ratios and dielectric materials I will have the same impedance as the reference ratio. Pretty easy if the reference cable is made right and to the value you want.
1.0) We can calculate the impedance with several equations, the easiest uses the resonance method. This measures capacitance at 1 KHz, and then using two RF frequencies uses a resonance property to calculate the velocity of the signal in the cable at RF. Now we have nothing but C and Vp. That’s all we need;
101670/(C*V) = impedance at RF. This equation is from MIL-C-17G section 22.214.171.124.
What is important is the relationship between velocity of propagation at a specific impedance and the capacitance in the RF range. We can’t use this relationship in the audio frequency range as Vp is non-linear.
2.0) A measurement, not calculation, can use a variable resistive bridge to measure a cable into a load that is resistive and can be varied, to determine the impedance. This relies on the cable’s structural return loss or SRL.
SRL is the signal return loss of a cable relative to its own impedance, caused by manufacturing imperfections in a cable.
How do we determine the impedance is the “structure” of the wire? In the test the load is varied until we measure a minimum reflection of the test load swept across an RF band. The resulting fitted impedance graph is the cable’s natural impedance, but only at RF, where a true transmission line’s property exists.
3.0 ) There is also return loss, or RL, which is a stricter criterion than SRL. Here is the difference between the two;
RF cable is mostly resistive, so we can use a resistive load. The cable, however is not a pure resistor even at RF. What does this do? Is it similar to an audio cable’s changing impedance with frequency?
Here is what happens in an RF twisted pair, which has enough geometric deviation to “see” electrically relative to a coaxial cable’s geometric perfection in terms of much more consistent electrical behavior. The twisted pair’s higher geometric variation is handy since it is allows us to show the effect of measured electrical RL performance with a graph. On the left side of the graph is impedance. This cable is supposed to be 100-ohms swept, or tested using a frequency sweep from 1-100 MHz.
If we sweep to test the return loss, RL differs from SRL as the load is fixed at 100-ohms. Since we can’t cheat and adjust the load to minimize reflections, we get a bunch of RL points in dB, I plotted in the X-axis with the impedance of that point in the Y-axis.
-What’s weird about this graph?
Let’s just look at the 100-ohm center frequency. We see that RL varies from –55 dB (smaller is better) to –25 dB. How is this happening at exactly a 100-ohms impedance? It’s because the impedance is a vector sum of the cable’s real (resistive) and imaginary (capacitance or inductance, but usually capacitance) vector magnitudes.
The vector is 100-ohms but it isn’t resistive anymore so we get reflections. The size or length of the resistive vector missed true 100-ohm values.
This idea tends to escape peoples’ interpretation of RF impedance. What about the points above and below the 100-ohms reference? Here is where people seem to go; we have impedance values higher and lower than a 100-ohm cable. But, some impedance values that miss the 100-ohms center frequency have lower RL than those on the 100-ohms line! The 100-ohms RL line stops at ~ -28dB. We can see several data points that are not 100-ohms, as high as 115-ohms and as low as 90 ohms, that are better than –28 dB RL value. It all relates back to the real versus imaginary component of that specific impedance vector.
But, impedance at RF is still not an easy matter to define, as it relates to signal transfer with all else this going on. In this next example we’ll use an open-short-load and open-short impedance test.
Let’s take a pause here and ask: is audio cable “related” to RF cable? We see reflections in an audio speaker cable off a much more reactive load than RF cable so the expected energy transfer is far harder to predict.
This next example tries to move the testing to low frequency audio cables even if we can’t accommodate the wavelength as a transverse electromagnetic wave.
4.0) This method is most common for very low frequency tests. The impedance is calculated from the open and short measurements (see the chart). This method de-imbeds, or removes, the “load” and concentrates on just the cable itself. It also is better the longer the cable can be for lower frequencies. As was mentioned earlier, an audio cable can’t be too long if we want to test impedance! We would, of course, never ever use one that long and that’s part of the problem. The data provides the signal magnitude and phase.
From the chart shown above, we see that impedance drops as we increase the frequency until it begins to flatten to ~60-ohms at about 1 MHz. Why?
But first, we need to emphasize a fundamental concept relevant to cable testing and design;
The math fits the physics, not the other way around.
Physics limits what we can do, and how we derive equations to fit nature to printed paper. Therefore, our model equations are often not perfectly correct along every point within a curve. This is called “curve fitting”. In the case of some math the results are called models because they are close to the real thing, but they aren’t completely accurate. Here’s an example:
A tonearm tracking curve is only correct in specific spots. The correct tracking geometry is not really “exactly” along the entire curve. A longer tonearm will improve how close we are to “right” so we can alter the design to reach different compromises.
The model suggests we are correct in exactly two spots, seen in the graphs of two tonearms of different lengths. One is a better model to theoretical ideal but both are exactly right at just only two spots. (Factor in overhang errors, stylus alignment and other issues and it becomes apparent the we need to consider what is happening in realty as well as mathematical models.)
This is only one example of why we can’t rely on mathematics – we can use it as a guide, but have to do the measurements to verify what’s happening in the real world. There are always variables that can’t be easily and correctly assessed using equations in the process of getting a model to be as accurate as we may need. Engineers characterize accuracy estimates as orders of approximations – zeroth-order, first-order and so on. It results in equations getting more complex as we add error correction.
Eventually an equation is accurate enough, and verified to real measurements, to become useful in designing a cable (or product).
Back to our analysis of the velocity of propagation and its importance in cable design: We can look at a few examples and see the actual Vp responses of known cables against measurements that the equation(s) are modeled from and see how they compare.
The above graphs show the Vp response of several audio cables. The equation derived from the curves is;
If we graph a cable, in this example a Belden 9515 multi-pair cable, and apply the low-frequency approximation equation, we see the data table below. The Vp values across frequency closely match the plotted swept data from our measurements. In this Vp example the impedance rises as frequency drops. (If R (resistance) or “C (capacitance) gets too high, we need to redefine the equation.)
We can see that in the low frequencies, we need a different equation to account for specific variables going to “zero” (as low as a variable will go) or “one” (as high as a variable will go) as we increase the frequency into the RF band. At RF frequencies we can use a single Vp value above 1 MHz. However, this has to be abandoned at audio frequencies. We’ve seen this earlier in the article in the measure of impedance, and since Vp is part of the impedance equation, since it determines capacitance, this isn’t a surprise after all. If we hold the impedance and change either C or Vp variable, the opposite one has to change; Zo= (101670/C*Vp).
In the example below, we have three equations for approximating cable impedance measurements. Notice that the curve rises as we drop in frequency, and is orders of magnitude higher than at RF. This is why we can’t make a “flat” or low-impedance cable through the audio band. (At RF, impedance is essentially resistive).
We also have simpler approximations we can use at low and high frequencies starting at 100 Hz (for low-frequencies) and at 1 kHz and 100 kHz (for higher frequencies). G, the mathematical symbol for conductance, is the reciprocal of resistance in siemens (S) or mhos units. L and C are in farads and Henrys. Yes, you need all the zeros; 12 pF is 0.000000000012 farads.
These simple equations don’t have “frequency” in the equation at the very high frequency ranges, so their results produce straight line graphs. For RF that’s all we need, though. The mid-range impedance equation does have frequency, OMEGA (v), which is (2f). R and C is length dependent so we have to set a length (SI units for instance). We also see the transition equation is a curved fitted line.
The “easy” definition of low-frequency impedance ignores reactive (capacitive or inductive) effects at the very low-end and sees impedance as just DCR, Direct Current Resistance. Reactive effects are worse as we drop in frequency, so it involves a lot more complicated approximation and doesn’t allow us to just ignore reactive effects from capacitance and inductance at low-frequencies.
At RF we can ignore reactive effects, and our earlier twisted pair impedance plot reactive RL measurements show that the vector magnitudes are close to a resistive value at the target impedance. We have no load reflections or out of phase information to worry about if the cable has good RL (low reflection) attributes.
The input impedance of a transmission line, open at the far end, looks like a capacitor. The reactance is worse at lower frequencies because capacitors pass higher frequencies better than lower frequencies. Impedance at low frequencies starts very high and drops very low as frequency goes up. Capacitors pass AC signals better the higher we go in frequency. Higher frequencies have lower Xc, or resistance to signal flow.
We see the higher impedance values at the low-frequency end, and dropping impedance values at the high frequency end caused by Vp and capacitive reactance change. The reactive effects slowly diminish at higher frequency (don’t impede AC current flow). The RF Vp reaches a steady state based on the dielectric. Vp is purely based on the material property of the dielectric at RF; 1/ SQRT(dielectric constant).
In the next installment, we’ll look at practical ways to change the velocity of propagation and improve signal linearity, among other subjects.
In Part One (Issue 129), EveAnna talked about her early musical influences and career, the origin of Manley Laboratories and Vacuum Tube Logic (VTL), and she how she came to be the president of Manley Labs and more. The interview continues here.
Frank Doris: I was going to ask, what makes you decide whether Manley Labs should make a high-end home audio or pro audio product? But you told me (in Part One of the interview) that a lot of your motivation for making new products happened in the mid 1990s after David Manley had left you and the company and you wanted to get back at him and his abusive relationship towards you by making better products than he ever did.
EveAnna Manley: Well, those emotions were fueling my work activity in the late 1990s.
FD: I felt a similar thing about turning negativity into creativity, though not from the same circumstances. I‘ve had psoriasis since I was 13 and people would stare at my skin. It made me feel like an outcast. I got angry and frustrated and channeled it into my guitar playing. In my late twenties I realized I wasn’t going to make it in the music business and decided to try my hand at writing.
EM: Who knew? (laughter)
Anyway, that determination fueled me at the time. Today, when we’re deciding what products to work on next, I’ve got a small team. I don’t have a big team, and man, this stuff takes forever to design and get to market. I wish our new designs would come out faster.
We sell about 85 percent pro audio products, and about 15 percent of our sales is consumer hi-fi. We normally have to dedicate our resources in proportion to that reality. Although, we’ve spent the last two years working on brand new high-end [consumer audio] preamplifiers. We sneak in little pro audio projects, like upgrades to the Massive Passive equalizer and VOXBOX channel strip, but we’ve been dedicating a lot of time to these new preamplifiers. One day they’ll be ready.
FD: Let’s talk about tubes. Where do you get them? How do you find good ones? Do you look for new old stock tubes?
EM: I think some of those parameters have totally changed over the 30-plus years I’ve been doing this. When I started, the GE (General Electric) factory was still producing 6550s. Chinese tubes were difficult to get because the trade [between countries] wasn’t as open as it is now. The same with Russia. The East and West weren’t really trading partners yet. The GE factory was about to close, and remember, Mullard had closed years before. In 1989 David Manley got in touch with the Yugoslavian EI (Elektronska Industrija) factory. He financed the development of a brand new output tube, the KT90, and he wanted it to be stronger and take more screen voltage than the KT88 or 6550.
When I say he developed it, he wasn’t the one who did all the engineering drawings and stuff. He specified and financed it. It was the first new tube to have been made in a while. That was all well and good until the Yugoslav Wars, and then the EI factory ended up closing. Fortunately, Russian tubes became more available at that time, spearheaded by Mike Matthews.
FD: The founder of Electro-Harmonix.
EM: Oh, thank goodness for Mike. So when we’re looking for new production tubes or working on new products, we’re designing around tubes we can get thousands of, and that’s going to mainly be all the Russian stuff. In the 1990s, you could still find these big batches of NOS and JAN [Joint Army-Navy mil-spec] tubes, and we’d procure 20,000 of this tube and 8,000 of that tube from various suppliers. That kind of stuff’s really dried up.
Another thing – there’s a ton of bullsh*t and fraud over this business.
FD: And counterfeits.
EM: Anyone can clean off the old markings, screen something or acid-etch a new number on a tube, and then you’re buying tubes that have been around the block several times.
I remember buying thousands of 6072 tubes. We went through and maybe we used 2,000 of them that were quiet enough for what we needed them for. And then the guy that had sold them to me bought them all back, saying he had a customer for them! They ended up in someone else’s production, but maybe the manufacturer just needs them for cathode followers or something, not for a low-noise application. The same thing can happen to me. I’ve got to be careful if I’m buying a big lot of NOS tubes to make sure they’re not somebody else’s rejects.
FD: Some of the stuff I see on eBay…
EM: Yeah. It’s like a bottle of wine, dude. You look at some fancy label and think, “ooh la la!” And then after you open it up and drink it, you discover that it’s just swill.
FD: On the other hand, I have NOS tubes from the 1970s that are still good. Some of them have seen hard use in guitar amps.
EM: If they’re still good, leave them alone. We had a couple pairs of amps over at Jackson Browne’s studio in Santa Monica. Man, I think he went about 18 years before he replaced those tubes. And they were on every day in an air-conditioned closet, driving his nearfield and his in-wall speakers in the control room.
EM: As a consumer, you’ve got to buy tubes from a trusted source. If you’re buying them from the manufacturer of your component, they’ll presumably have tested those tubes for best performance in your piece of gear.
FD: Kevin Hayes of Valve Amplification Company once told me you can’t separate the sound of a tube from the circuit that it’s in.
EM: He’s right.
FD: How do you pick the tubes that are good enough for Manley products?
EM: We have several purpose-built tube testing fixtures. We have devised custom test procedures for different tubes so that we can maximize usage of these precious resources and try to get the best tube for the job into “that” socket, as different circuits have different requirements for what parameters are key to optimum performance.
Every tube goes through burn-in and various stages of pre-qualification before they are plugged into any Manley product. After initial bench testing and alignment, the whole unit goes to bake-in for several days before final calibration and listening. We have burn-in fixtures to accept common 9-pin tubes like 12AX7, 12AT7, 12AU7, 12BH7 etc. and another fixture for 6922 tubes. We can burn-in more than 100 tubes at a time on these jigs.
For differential circuits that demand close triode-to-triode internal matching, we have testing fixtures that step through many tubes during burn-in and ascertain the internal match of the dual-triode. But tubes that fail this test can easily be deployed into single-ended circuits that do not require a triode-to-triode match.
We also have power tube soak and bias-match stations that apply fixed negative bias amounts to each output tube, so that a quiescent current draw reading can be taken from that tube in that fixture.
Also, importantly, any power tube that an existing customer already has in his Manley amplifiers can be matched to new tubes, as these fixtures have been in use unchanged since the mid-1990s. There are two jigs, one for EL84s and the other for all the octal-based power tubes we use or have used through the years including 5881, EL34, 6550, KT88 and KT90 types.
We have a custom-made noise tester that helps us further qualify the common 9-pin small-signal tubes. With this fixture. we have the ability to reverse the triode testing order, starve the heaters to predict a tube’s cathode coating integrity, get a numeric noise level readout, and listen to the quality of the noise and microphonics via the built-in headphone jack. We also have a commercially available Amplitrex tester but we do not use it for production tube testing.
FD: Let’s shift gears for a minute. You said your father, Albert J. Dauray, was the co-owner of (musical instrument amplifier manufacturer) Ampeg. I thought Everett Hull was the founder.
EM: He was. Dad bought the company from him in ’65 or ’66. I actually have the proposed buyout agreement in my possession. Isn’t that cool?
FD: Talk about having roots in tube gear! Everett Hull didn’t like rock and roll. That’s why the early Ampeg amplifiers sound so clean.
EM: And dad recognized that he needed to get into rock and roll, which is one of the reasons why later Ampeg amplifiers sounded different.
FD: What were your first audio shows like? I remember my first CES. I wore the wrong shoes! It was painful.
EM: You have to wear the right shoes at shows! The first audio show I went to was the 1989 Stereophile show up in San Mateo, California. I wasn’t really booked to work the show, but I drove up because I was really interested how things worked.
I remember standing in the room and people would come up to ask this little girl a question like, “What tubes are in the 100-watt monoblocks?” And I didn’t know because all I knew was the underside of the thing, from working on it on the production line! I could tell you what the grid resistor was! “Well, just a second. Let me see that. That’s an EL34.” So I started learning an important lesson: I’m not in school anymore. I don’t have to know all the answers in order to pass a test or get a grade. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know. Let me go find out and come back with the answer.”
Our booth was amazing. David had set up this big system and he had just bought some master tape collection and was playing them through a Studer tape machine. My next show was the New York Stereophile show the year later, where we had two pairs of big Mirage speakers stacked on top of each other, driven by our giant amplifiers, with the tape machine playing the master tapes, and holy crap! We had infinity Beta speakers at home at the time, and would replicate that kind of big sound we had been getting in the big ballrooms of the hotels where the shows were held. It was awesome. I felt so proud, like, oh my god, the thing I just built can make sound like that!
I was also learning how to listen critically. Then I started meeting people, like the Chesky brothers [David and Norman Chesky], Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds and [former] Stereophile publisher Mark Fisher running around with this walkie talkie trying to organize things.
FD: I really miss all that.
EM: I’m happy not to have to go to shows right now though because we’re so damn busy. We’ve sold so much gear in the past year. Oh my god. We are exhausted. We don’t need any more exposure right now.
FD: I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who are saying they’re busier than ever. They would have never foreseen it.
EM: We had our biggest year ever last year. And we did it with the same number of employees. We just we worked ourselves ragged. A lot of overtime, a lot of 100-hour weeks.
FD: Some have said, maybe last year has proven we don’t need to go to shows anymore.
EM: I disagree. I think all that human contact and networking is important for our sense of community. I’ve always been really big about reaching out to my peers, and we help each other. It’s not like, “ugh, I hate you. You’re going to take my customer.”
FD: I personally think that when we can all go out again, there’s going to be an explosion. Live music, restaurants, shows…people will be thinking, “man, I’ve been sitting here for a year. I’m really interested in buying this VTL or VAC or the ultimate speaker system I’ve been dreaming about and I want to spend the money and go to the show and hear it.”
EM: Well, I hope they buy a Manley! You’re going to give me a big hug when you see me again!
In speaking with Eppy, he mentioned that he was promoting a concert in Jamaica with the headliner Peter Tosh. A bunch of disc jockeys from Long Island’s FM station WBAI were going and my then wife and I were invited too. This was a vacation, reasonably inexpensive; it would just cost us round-trip air fare and an all-inclusive hotel package, and of course, free admission to the concert.
Michael “Eppy” Epstein was the owner of My Father’s Place in Roslyn, Long Island. It was a well-established rock and roll club that opened in 1971 and has had a long and good history. (After closing in 1987, it reopened at the Roslyn Hotel in 2010.) Hundreds of acts played there, many before they became stars, including Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Good Rats, John Prine, The Police, Aerosmith, Hall and Oates and countless others.
The timing for the Jamaica trip was good for me. I was between tours, so I had the time and so did Jessica, my wife at the time. Jessica was in early pregnancy about three months along and had just started showing. It was winter, so Jamaica and the beach would be a nice break from the bleak New York weather. This seemed like a good diversion and with the impending birth of my son I could not know if such an opportunity would present itself again.
The concert was scheduled for February 24th at the Trelawny Hotel on the beach, and that was where we were staying. This was the first date of the 1978 Bush Doctor tour. The next date he would play would be the One Love Peace Concert, which would take place two months later at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica. After that concert Tosh and the band went on to the Stateside portion of the tour. For most of the US dates they would be opening for the Rolling Stones and playing coliseums.
We all bought tickets on the same Air Jamaica flight and met at JFK. Once on board the stewardesses plied us with a rum punch drink that was delicious and quite intoxicating. The flight, which was noisy at first, became very quiet as most everyone fell asleep (make that, passed out) until landing. After picking up our luggage we boarded a bus that the hotel provided. Check-in was quick and we deposited our luggage in our room.
A quick change into bathing suits and we hit the beach. It was early afternoon and a beautiful day. The sun was bright, the beach was exceptional, the water was warm and there were plenty of beach chairs. Around 4:00-ish Jessica and I decided we had had enough sun for the day and went back to our room. After showering and unpacking we readied for dinner. We noticed we were sunburned, but not too badly, and congratulated ourselves for being smart enough to get out of the sun in time.
Dinner was served in a large room big enough to hold two to three hundred people, with big round tables that seated eight. The dinner was fish stew, and it was not bad, not great but OK. That was the dinner – no options. The servers were local and had a bit of an attitude. That is when I found out we were in a government-owned hotel. Every employee was a civil servant. Imagine a hotel run by the personnel of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Even when they tried to be nice, they could not quite get there. After dinner, a drink at the bar and then bed.
At breakfast the next morning I really saw the reluctance of the staff. None of the tables had a coffee pot. Instead, they had a couple of servers walking around the room with coffee pots. The idea was, you’d raise your hand or make some kind of signal and one of them would come over and pour you some coffee. Here’s the rub. The servers would walk around the room and almost never “see” or acknowledge a guest motioning for coffee. It was amazing and frustrating, especially since the Jamaican coffee was delicious. If it wasn’t so annoying it would have been funny. You could never make eye contact with them or get their attention. They were always looking in another direction. They had it down to an art form. If they refilled two cups of coffee a minute that would mean they were working too hard. Another trick they’d use was that they’d pour a drop of coffee in your cup and say the pot was empty, and that they had to go back to the kitchen and refill the coffee pot, thusly putting the guest back to square one.
I did not know the extent to which the Jamaicans were angry and that there was political violence in Jamaica, particularly between the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP). An example of this was The Green Bay Massacre that happened just a month earlier on January 5th, 1978, in which five Jamaican Labour Party supporters were ambushed and shot dead. I did know that a few years earlier some American tourists had been murdered on a hotel golf course, but my situational awareness was not up to speed. These were bad times politically, the economic disparity had persisted for years, and things were coming to a head. This was not a civil war but very close to one. These political parties vied for supporters through political patronage, and the development of Jamaican trade unionism. That said, they needed tourist dollars, but on the other hand they resented the hell out of us.
After breakfast Jessica and I ran into some of our fellow passengers from the plane. This couple had been sitting next to us. They were badly sunburned and in real pain. The guy had gel all over his exposed areas. I asked him what the gel was, and he said, “Preparation H.” That surprised me and I said, “I do not think I would have thought of that.” He replied, “look, if it shrinks hemorrhoids then it should help with sunburn.” Made sense – the pain from sunburn is from swelling. I said, “but how about taking an aspirin? That way you will not get that gel all over your room furniture and bed.” “That is a thought,” he answered, and then he and his girlfriend went back to their room and we did not see them again till the last day.
In the afternoon it started to cloud up, so we decided to take a ride on the hotel’s glass bottom boat. The boats’ route was through a passageway opening in the reef to a shallow bay just down the coast, where there were tons of colorful fish and plenty of underwater activity. It was okay, but as usual, the boat crew was not into it and the boat was grungy and showed signs of wear; the glass bottom was foggy. On the way back we were going through the split in the reef when a big wave came up behind the boat and almost swamped us. The crew was not paying attention and they were just as surprised as we were. The boat was pushed sideways and almost tipped over on its side. I then realized that the boat crew were not sailors but just hotel employees. This revelation really pissed me off, that the hotel would thoughtlessly jeopardize our lives by having incompetents crew the boat. A few minutes later we disembarked at the hotel. I was still pretty annoyed that my pregnant wife and unborn child were put in danger! I never thought we would have our safety threatened in a touristy glass bottom boat ride.
Later that night it started to rain. It continued for the next two days and without the sun there was nothing to do and it was really boring. I could not blame the resort; it was the weather, but still, we were on vacation with nothing to do.
Finally, the day of the concert the rain stopped and it started to clear up. It was not a beach day though, so some of us walked to a nearby forest and took a hike. It was lush and tropical but after a few miles the humidity took its toll and we were dripping with sweat, so we turned back. Being pregnant, my wife did not come on the hike but instead took a book and sat near the beach in the shade and read.
At 5:00 pm everyone on the hotel grounds could hear the sound check, because this was an outdoor concert. Near dusk, the concert started. Initially it was not that crowded, but the audience was native Jamaicans so I thought they might still be getting off work. Pretty quickly the audience area was filling up. The reggae music was a tonic settling on the crowd, and people started dancing. It was a happy concert, with good sound and visibility and the music freed the audience from their cares. For the first time since I had arrived in Jamaica I felt at ease and comfortable, maybe even welcomed.
Jessica was joined by a bunch of Jamaican gals around her age they were laughing and talking about pregnancy, makeup and men. The air reeked of ganja and rum was the drink. Being pregnant, Jessica would touch none of that, but I wasn’t as restricted, and she did not mind (she was good-natured about stuff like that). I turned to a group of Jamaican guys and they welcomed me like I was a long-lost cousin and passed me a spliff. I got really buzzed.
It was an all-Jamaican audience and the only outsiders were us, the hotel guests. But the music bonded us like we were one. Peter Tosh was amazing, and he talked to his fellow countrymen as his neighbors. It was a special concert moment, almost like a family gathering, and even though we were inebriated we could feel there was a great vibe in the air.
After the concert Jessica helped me up to our room. I was still really ripped and once in the room it started to spin. I started to get undressed and halfway through I fell face-forward on to the bed. I looked up and Jessica was taking pictures of me and laughing her butt off. I started laughing too but was also begging her to stop.
The next morning at breakfast it was the same deal as before, trying to get the attention of the coffee servers. But Eppy sat down at the table and was given coffee without even having to ask for it. He did not look good so I asked him, “what’s wrong?” He said, “I got killed last night. They broke my back.” “Really? I thought you had a full house, at least a couple of thousand people. That is a lot of tickets,” I noted. “Yeah, if they paid for them it would be.” “What happened?” I asked. “We sold a few hundred tickets and the rest of the audience were let in through the kitchen.” The kitchen staff had snuck them in. Probably the whole hotel staff knew what was happening and even helped. “Damn man, that is terrible. Any recourse?” Eppy replied, “No, not a thing I can do.” “That sucks. I wonder if Peter Tosh knew of the gate crashers?” Eppy just gave me a long look.
We went up to our rooms, picked up our luggage and loaded up on the shuttle bus back to the airport. The flight home was uneventful, and Jessica and I got back to our one-bedroom duplex apartment on 18th Street in Manhattan by 5 pm. It was not one of our best vacations. The service was terrible, the food and hotel at best just mediocre. But it was not all bad – there were some moments. The concert was very special and the whole affair was like being given the privilege of participating in a warm, private family gathering.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/jemacb.
In Issue 130, Russ noted that he’s been reappraising his audio system and went over some basic ideas about speaker setup. The series continues here.
When placing your speakers in any given room, you may initially be concerned with all the factors you can’t control: the size of the room, its orientation, what furniture must go in there, if there is a hard wooden floor or large exposed glass surfaces that will cause unwanted sonic reflections, and so on. Although each of these individual issues can be examined and dealt with separately, let’s look at one of the factors we can readily control, so that we can happily say, “I’ve found a super position for my speakers! They sound great here.”
In quantum mechanics, particles can be in two or more states at the same time. (I wish I could work and sleep at the same time! Wouldn’t that be cool?) This is known as superposition. “But what has this got to do with our speaker positioning?” I hear you holler.
It may not be a precise analogy but if our speakers are placed optimally, they can be in two “states” at the same time: occupying the physical locations where we set them down, and at the same time, sonically “disappear.” Like our subatomic particles, they could be thought of as having two states or properties.
How do we get our speakers to be both “there” and “not there?”
When we get the soundstage correct, we can look and still know where the speakers are, but according to our ears, the sound produced will seem as if the speakers aren’t even there. Instead, we hear the band or artists as an event, and are immersed in the performance. The speakers become exciting.
By making fine adjustments we can perhaps even suspend disbelief entirely.
So how can we improve our listening experience? What I’m going to suggest is a bit different from the usual setup articles. First, a tip on what to listen for.
Do you close your eyes when you listen to music? Depriving yourself of sight may enhance your sense of hearing and listening. As you listen, think about how significant the vocals are in the mix, and how the song may have been produced with the intention of drawing you in as the listener, by getting you to engage with the emotion of the piece.
Now consider the fact that vocals are one of our first natural references for communicating, and using our own voice can help us in setting up our speakers.
You are likely most familiar with the sound of your own voice, and its natural properties are firmly imprinted in your mind. You know what you sound like. This can assist you in determining how far from the rear wall you should place your main speakers. If you stand with your back against that wall and speak out loud at normal talking volume, pay attention to the tone of your voice. You may notice more reverb and/or delay than usual. Your voice may sound closed and less open. Move slightly forward away from the wall and repeat your recital. Again, notice if there’s a change in your voice. Does it sound less “slappy,” slightly warmer and less echoey? Keep gradually advancing forward until you like the tone of your voice, where it sounds most natural and familiar to you without that excessive reverb and hardness from being too close to the walls. Then, try placing your speakers at this same distance from the wall and listen to their tonal balance, and make further adjustments from there. You’ll likely notice they also sound more natural and develop more openness and breadth in their tone; literally sounding less hard and closed-in. They say that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness but perhaps it’s worth it in this case!
In the previous article I mentioned the importance of reading the manufacturers’ guidelines for speaker placement, both in relation to their distance from each other and from the back wall. (Remember, these are guidelines, not absolute requirements.) But what if there is no such information? Many manufacturers will not state a specific optimal distance from the rear wall, because this can vary according to the dimensions of the room itself. The room will heavily dictate the overall sound, because its dimensions will determine the areas of bass reinforcement and cancellation and the behaviour of standing waves in the room. If you place the speakers in an area of cancellation or reinforcement, the tonal balance can suffer greatly.
You may discover that a good starting point for your main speakers is to place them one fifth of the total room length into the room and one fifth in from the side walls. Alternatively, you can try the famous “rule of thirds” you’ve probably heard of before. If that’s not possible, try placing them one fifth of the room away from the side walls. Measure your distances from the front and center of the speaker as this is the acoustic source of your sound. If you measure from the rear of the speaker you could end up placing them further into the room than is necessary. Save yourself some space – measure from the front. Also, measure precisely – it’s important to get the speakers as accurately and symmetrically placed as possible. Even fractions of an inch can make a difference.
Placing the speakers as far apart from each other as possible will allow for a wide soundstage. However, if they’re too far apart you’ll get a “hole in the middle” rather than a seamless spread of sound with a focused center image, which is what you want. To get your sweet spot, angle the speakers in toward your listening position, which will increase the focus of the image, making it more solid. Toeing in your speakers increases the ratio of direct to reflected sound. Check for increased brightness and adjust to taste as you make these incremental adjustments.
Be aware though that some speakers are specifically designed to be positioned without any toe in, as their responses are very even both on and widely off axis. This is great for consistency of sound in a wider seating area and toeing in these speakers may yield no improvement at all. Some speakers actually sound better with no toe in purely as a characteristic of their “personality” and may well be bright enough already.
If the sound is still too boomy, it may be that your speakers are still too close to the wall. Gradually bring the speakers away from the walls until that boominess is gone. Also, the depth of the sound field can suffer if the speakers are too close to the wall, and moving them further out into the room can really get the sound to open up.
Similarly, a good starting position for your listening chair is about one fifth of the length of the room in from the rear wall because, again, you won’t be located typically where standing waves peaks and troughs occur. Again, experiment. Moving the chair even a few inches forward or back can have a big effect. I realize that for many of us, however, we simply don’t have the freedom to put our listening chair in the ideal spot, or we may just decide against it because we don’t like the way it looks. If you can, it’s good to give yourself a reference of how good it sounds there and then you can aim for this within the compromises or further decisions you make afterwards. But at the least, try moving the listening position to different places, if at all possible.
What else can you try? Given that you want to avoid sitting where standing waves build up, you can experiment with placing your seating at a point that is not in a location where this problem is compounded, such as in the middle of the room. Measure the width of the wall behind your front speakers. Multiply this by 1.25 and place your seating this far back from that wall, in the middle of the room’s width. So, let’s say your room is 12 feet wide. Take your 12 feet width and multiply it by 1.25 = 15 feet. Place your chair at 15 feet from the rear wall behind the speakers and test drive your music from here.
But what if you find yourself competing with furniture or general access through the room? If this is the case, you may choose to reduce the distance between your main speakers so that your seat can be placed equidistant from them in a simple equilateral triangle. (In fact, many speaker setup articles will recommend such a triangle configuration between you and the speakers as a starting point, and it’s a tried-and-true method for many listening situations.) You may compromise some of the spaciousness of the soundstage – but not necessarily – as you place yourself in a more intimate position closer to the speakers. If you find this to be too focussed and direct sounding, experiment with toeing your speakers out a few degrees for your personalised room super position.
Header image: Klipsch Forte IV loudspeakers.
One of the most controversial topics in the audiophile universe is the digital versus analog debate. After the introduction of the compact disc in the early 1980s, the sales of analog music formats (LPs and cassette tapes mainly) declined steadily until 2007, when there was a revival of interest in vinyl. Since then, the market for vinyl LPs has seen a double-digit percentage rise each year, whereas CDs are gradually being replaced by music streaming, such that the value of LPs sold in 2020 exceeded that of CDs for the first time since the 1980s. Even the compact cassette tape is making a comeback, with the recent resumption of blank tape manufacturing.
There are several reasons for the revival of vinyl LPs. While some audiophiles claim that LPs sound better than digital formats, sales growth is being driven not by audiophiles (who only represent a small fraction of the record buying public and are mostly more mature adults), but by young music lovers getting into the format for the first time. Music has become a commodity, something that is so easily available from streaming sites, and this allows music lovers to acquaint themselves with music from years past. My son listens pretty much to the same music as I did at his age; he is no longer confined to what is on the charts. He can explore and decide for himself what he likes. The revival of interest in the music of times past also stirs up the desire to own the music in the formats that people used to have in that era. I can still remember the thrill of opening a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon that I bought with the money I earned at my summer job. There is no such thrill when I click a song to play on Tidal. The whole package, with the illustrated jacket, the black disc, the printed lyrics and posters instill a pride of ownership. As audiophiles, we should thank these consumers for giving a reason to the record companies to continue manufacturing vinyl LPs.
Going back to the question of which is better, digital or analog, this is not an easy question to answer and depends on the perspective of the user. If you ask a professional (recording and mastering engineers), you will probably hear a completely different answer than if you ask an audiophile. It is not so much due to the differences in how these two groups of users evaluate sound quality, but due to their very different experiences in using these two technologies. The experience of a typical audiophile is often limited to compact discs, SACDs, high-resolution PCM and DSD file playback, streaming, and vinyl LPs. For the professionals, it is the high-resolution formats (nobody records in Red Book format anymore) with the associated hardware and software, versus analog tape and the associated analog hardware. While audiophiles only care about the sound quality of the end product, professionals have to take into account the production process.
I am not a professional, but I have been making recordings for many years as a hobbyist, so I have some idea about the production process. Music production nowadays invariably involves multiple tracks, and digital technology has made this infinitely easier. All the mixing and editing can be done in post-production with a digital audio workstation and computer. A large variety of plug-ins are available to apply different effects to the sound. Expensive hardware is no longer necessary; there are plug-ins that emulate the sound of famous vintage microphones, plate reverbs, compressors and so on. And the changes made are fully reversible, whereas a bad splice of the analog master tape can become a disaster. It is like the difference between using a typewriter and Microsoft Office.
The danger is in relying too much on post-production and not paying enough attention during the recording process. During the early stereo era, sessions were recorded onto two or three-track tape recorders. Some companies such as Mercury only used three microphones, and the three tracks from the microphones were mixed down to stereo during mastering. Companies such as Decca that used multiple microphones would mix the tracks in real time into stereo during the recording session. This meant the balance engineers had to get everything right during the expensive recording sessions, as there was no way to remix the tracks afterwards. Microphone placement was of paramount importance. After the introduction of multitrack analog recorders, mixing could be done during post-production (and Dolby noise reduction, introduced in 1965, aided in the process). However, tape was (and still is) expensive and editing must be done manually (by cutting and splicing the actual tape!), giving the engineers the incentive to get everything right during the recording session. As my partners and I always record in analog (with digital as backup), we are well aware of these pitfalls.
However, I have attended professional multi-miked recording sessions where one microphone was used for each player of an orchestra, placed casually and without regard for phase cancellation. The idea is that everything can be corrected during post-production, which is actually not true. The natural acoustics of the recording venue and the perspective of the orchestra can never be re-created by simply mixing the individual instruments together. This might be one of the reasons why recordings made 60 years ago still sound better than many modern recordings, despite the technological advances that have happened since then.
Old analog recordings often sound better because of how the music business is run today. In the past, large labels had their own recording teams with highly experienced recording and mastering engineers, along with an apprentice system to train the next generation. The engineers were intimately familiar with the recording venues and produced consistently excellent recordings. During the heyday of the music business, labels were able to make good profits from record sales. Nowadays, the revenue stream from sales of physical media has dried up, and the income from streaming is miniscule. Recording projects are often outsourced to the lowest bidder, and artists sometimes have to pay for the recordings themselves. Nobody can afford to take on projects such as Decca’s Wagner Ring cycle.
Another reason why early stereo recordings are often better is that the record-buying public in that era cared about sound quality. Buying a stereo system involved a significant financial outlay, and there was no distinction between “audiophile” and consumer equipment, at least not until the Japanese companies entered the market with mid-fi and mass market products in the 1960s and dominated it in the 1970s. In other words, anyone buying LPs or open reel tapes in those days was what we would now call an audiophile. All major classical labels were in effect audiophile labels, and sound quality was a major selling point, in addition to the quality and reputation of the artists.
Music nowadays is mostly played on smartphones, car sound systems and computer speakers. The number of people who still sit and listen in front of a stereo system is very small. Music is therefore mastered in such a way so as to optimize the quality when played through these modern means of listening. That means compression is used so that soft passages can be heard even in noisy environments outdoors or in a car, and equalization is used to compensate for the limited bandwidth of these devices. This obliterates the dynamic shading and tonality of the music when played through a high-quality stereo system.
This is not to say that there are no high-quality recordings being made nowadays. Many small independent labels still produce recordings with sound quality in mind, using the latest high-resolution digital technology. Ironically, some engineers feel that passing a digital recording through analog tape makes it sound more natural. This might have to do with the higher noise floor of analog tape. This noise mimics the background noise of natural acoustic environments, whereas the almost noise-free background of digital recordings actually sounds unnatural. There are now plug-ins that add tape noise, tape saturation and other analog artifacts to digital recordings!
Many people have offered opinions as to why digital recordings do not sound as good as analog in their estimation. As I have very limited technical knowledge of digital audio technology, I will not comment on the merits of these arguments. Through the monitoring system we use during recording sessions, switching from the live feed to high-resolution digital, especially DSD, sounds indistinguishable to me. However, during playback at home, the tape often sounds more dynamic and natural, but this could be due to the quality of the playback equipment, as I have not invested anywhere near the same amount on my digital front end as on my analog front end.
For the audiophile, comparing analog and digital often comes down to a comparison between LPs and CDs or high-resolution digital formats. Again, the quality of the respective playback equipment matters, and for LPs, proper set up of the record player is a must. The question is, do LPs represent the best analog has to offer? LPs have a lot of inherent limitations. The linear velocity of the groove decreases towards the center of an LP, and the lower velocity at the end of a side leads to an increase in distortion and makes tracking more difficult. For symphonic music, it is often the end of a piece that has the greatest dynamics, right where the groove velocity is the lowest. Compression (dynamic range limiting) is therefore often necessary to prevent mistracking. Longer pieces require narrower grooves to fit onto one side of an LP, which again can require compression.
The whole process of LP production involves multiple steps, with potential for sonic degradation at each stage. LPs that are made with new stampers sound better than those made with worn out stampers. Background noise is a function of the quality of the pressing process and of the vinyl material. An off-center spindle hole will cause pitch instability that is more evident with certain instruments such as a piano. Only when all the stars are aligned will one get a perfect record. Digital recordings, on the other hand, are always consistent. They sound the same whether you have played them once or a thousand times. Whereas music with limited bandwidth and dynamic range, such as a folk singer with a guitar, might sound better on an LP, a Mahler symphony will almost certainly sound more dynamic on high-resolution digital, given the superior signal to noise ratio and dynamic range of digital recordings compared to LPs.
There are around 60 recordings for which I have both the LP and a copy of the master tape (mostly copies of the production or safety masters). Most of these are Decca, EMI and RCA recordings from the late 1950s to mid-1970s. In no case is the LP superior. In over half, the quality gap is wide, and all the LPs that sound close to the tapes are modern reissues. Certain prominent magazine reviewers past and present have touted the superiority of first pressings, and some of these now cost an arm and a leg as a result. Examples include some RCA Living Stereo “Shaded Dog,” (Nipper, the RCA dog, is pictured against a shaded red background; later “Plain Dog” pressings have a plain red background), Mercury Living Presence and “wide-band” Decca LPs (so called because the silver band on the label that says “Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound” is wider).
In my experience, these old LPs rarely live up to their reputation, which I don’t find surprising. Vinyl record production technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the late 1950s, so it would not make any sense that these ancient LPs should be better than those reissued today, unless the master tapes have significantly deteriorated. The original issues were also made in larger numbers, whereas modern audiophile reissues are made in far smaller quantities, with smaller production runs from each stamper to ensure more consistent quality. Rather than spending the money on these vintage collector’s items, why not spend the money on reissues to support today’s manufacturers and ensure they will continue to be available in the future?
So, here are my conclusions. Assuming the quality level of the playback equipment for digital and analog is comparable, I would go for a digital format if the original recording was in digital. It makes no sense to me to produce an LP from a digital source (except for DJs who use turntables for scratching). For music that was originally recorded in analog, the choice comes down to the type of music. For music that is large scale and dynamic, I would go for a high-resolution digital remastering as long as it was done correctly, in order to avoid problems associated with LPs such as end-of-side distortion, compression and noise. For other forms of music, it comes down to the quality of the LP pressings versus the quality of digital remastering. Given a choice, I prefer the DSD format. Other than any simple “splicing” or editing that might need to be done, DSD must be converted to PCM (usually in 24-bit, 352.8kHz, also called the Digital eXtreme Definition or DXD format) for editing before re-converting back to DSD. Whether this causes any appreciable loss in quality is debatable. For conversion of analog materials to DSD, it is best to do the remastering in analog domain before conversion.
Dealing with music originally recorded in Red Book CD standard (16-bit, 44.1kHz) is another matter. Early digital recordings suffer from a loss of low-level detail. In an article by a recording engineer about his early experiences with digital recording, he talked about the way he heard the steps of the recording artist as she entered the studio; on the analog tape, he could also hear the reverberation following each step, but on the digital recording played back at the same level, he could only hear the feet striking the floor but not the reverberations. This loss of low-level information is what makes early digital recordings sound unnatural and less dynamic when compared to analog tape. Early analog to digital converters had an effective bit depth of only 14 bits even though 16 bits were specified. This gave a dynamic range of 84 dB, and if overloaded would result in highly unpleasant non-harmonic distortions. The Nyquist limit (the highest frequency that could be encoded without aliasing, which is half of the sampling frequency) of 22 kHz is just at the limit of the audio band, thus requiring steep anti-alias filtering before digitization. These steep analog filters can introduce amplitude and phase non-linearities as well as ringing. The eventual adoption of oversampling allowed the use of more gentle filter slopes. Unfortunately, the loss of low level detail and the artifacts introduced by anti-alias filters cannot be undone during remastering. We therefore have a decade’s worth of recordings that will always remain problematic.
I have bought very few CDs over the years; most of my digital music collection comes from converting LPs and tapes to DSD, and from high-resolution downloads. For standard Red Book listening, either from CD rips or streaming services, I prefer real-time conversion to DSD128 during playback using Audirvana software.
There are many recordings made during the golden age of music performances, decades before the digital era, featuring artists such as Furtwangler, Walter, Kleiber, Callas, Oistrakh, Kogan, Du Pre, Cortot and Richter to name just a few. On the rock music front, most of the important releases from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and other greats were made during the analog era, not to mention many classic jazz and blues recordings. Some of these have been remastered into new LP and digital releases, but we are at the mercy of the mastering engineers, since many of the original artists are no longer with us and cannot ensure that their original intent is properly preserved. This is why many people still seek out the original LPs. Some of these recordings are now being released in open reel tape format, mostly 1:1 copies from master tapes (copies made at the original playback speed rather than high-speed duplication, which is used for expediency but can create sonic degradation) and without additional manipulation. In my view, this is the ideal format for preserving recordings from the pre-digital era. I will further discuss this new trend in future articles.
Header image courtesy of Pexels/cottonbro.
As a hard-core audiophile, I’ve spent the better part of my life working on improving my audio systems. I’ll admit – mostly because of selfishness. I want to hear music reproduced as perfectly as possible. I don’t want merely good. I want incredible, mind-blowing.
I’m extremely happy with the way my system sounds now, but I know it could be better.
Will we ever have audio systems that literally sound like the real thing? The obvious answer is no. After all, as Galen Gareis (see his articles in this issue and in Issue 130) has noted, you can’t beat the laws of physics. But what if you could, or at least work around them? Why not dream of the day when music systems can sound exactly like live music?
This is going to involve some pie-in-the-sky speculation and I invite readers to tell me I’m completely crazy, or laugh uproariously at my lack of scientific knowledge. But, we all want perfect audio reproduction. (Except for looking at mics, I’m going to skip over the fact that the recording chain would also have to achieve perfection.) How can we get it? Not only don’t I know the answers, I don’t even know if I’m asking the right questions. I’m putting this out there as food for thought, and to encourage comments.
The deviation from sonic reality starts right at the beginning of the recording process. As soon as the sound of the vocalist, instrument or whatever acoustic waves that are traveling through the air hits the microphone, it’s already game over. The microphone diaphragm has mass, and inertia. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion, whether a car or a microphone diaphragm. No matter how delicate the mic’s diaphragm, it can’t move in an exact reproduction of the sound hitting it.
So how do you solve that? Eliminate the mass! Create a massless microphone. In fact, there have been attempts at this, including plasma microphones and laser beamforming, where laser-induced (air) breakdown (LIB) generates an audio signal. Here’s a laser-and-smoke proof of concept microphone. This example doesn’t sound good, but it’s a prototype of a patented technology created years ago so who knows where it could lead?
At an AES convention once, I mentioned the idea of a massless microphone to the director of engineering of a well-known audio company. The person gave me a sharp look and replied, “we’ve actually got some ideas about that but if I told you, I’d have to kill you!”
The converse of the sound hitting the microphone is, of course, the sound coming out of the loudspeakers. Here the problem of overcoming mass and inertia is greater, since we’re dealing with the movement of much larger speaker diaphragms and voice coil assemblies. A partial solution that’s already been in use is the use of a servo control mechanism, where motional feedback from the driver is sent (from an accelerometer attached to the driver) back to the amplifier, which then corrects its output in an attempt to control the “overhang” of the driver. This typically would be used with woofers and subwoofers. However, I don’t know if it’s ever been tried with midrange drivers or tweeters. Anyone?
As another approach, maybe some kind of DSP that doesn’t actually measure the motional feedback from the drivers, but “anticipates” the drivers’ behavior might be worth looking into. Musical signals and driver behavior can be extremely complex, but maybe it’s just an engineering problem.
If we can dream of a massless diaphragm, why not a massless speaker? Actual massless speakers have in fact been demonstrated – dig this YouTube video featuring The Audiophiliac, Steve Guttenberg, and designer Nelson Pass of Pass Laboratories talking about his Ion Cloud speaker.
Those of you lucky enough to have heard an Ionovac tweeter can attest to its almost spooky purity. But so far, such designs have proven impractical or impossible to implement on a mass-market scale; as examples, the Ion Cloud produced high levels of ozone, and the legendary Hill Plasmatronics speaker had to be fueled with helium.
Interesting work is being done with carbon nanotube speakers, but they simply have less mass, not none, and the sound quality isn’t there. Yet. And at a CES a few years ago, someone demonstrated a system that involved beaming an audio signal on an ultrasonic carrier wave, or something like that, but I couldn’t attend the demo and don’t remember the company’s name. As I understand it, the system still needed a transducer to send the signal. Can any readers help?
Maybe there’s a way to manipulate air that no one’s thought of yet.
Let’s consider our music sources. In the case of analog, it involves dragging a rock (the stylus) through a plastic medium (the record), then sending a minuscule signal created by a cantilever and electromagnetic generator (the rest of the cartridge) to an equalization circuit (the phono preamp). I think it’s safe to say that such a system is never going to attain perfection. Analog tape seems no less odd when you really think about it – running a thin ribbon of plastic, coated with magnetically-responsive particles, through an electromagnetic tape head for recording and playback. On the other hand, like a bumblebee flying, it never ceases to amaze me at how such Rube Goldbergian devices can sound so utterly fantastic.
I can’t help but think: might there be an entirely new way to record and reproduce a perfect analog musical signal that doesn’t involve imperfect analog playback hardware? Some kind of as-yet-un-invented optical technology, maybe? I know, I know, there would be transduction involved in the acoustic-to-optical-to-electrical signal, but a man can dream, can’t he?
Then there’s digital. I’m not an engineer and don’t want to debate how much of a sample rate is really adequate (we can leave that for the comments), but the idea of chopping up the audio signal and reconstructing it just seems…weird to me. (I know, I know, and I’m not that much of a techno-rube, but…still.) I do find the sound of high-resolution audio to be satisfying and enjoyable. But is it the sonic perfection we’re looking for?
How about an audio system’s preamplifiers and amplifiers? Many of us are familiar with the concept of “straight wire with gain,” where the ideal amplification circuit would simply amplify the signal and add no coloration of its own. How could we make it happen, especially when veteran circuit designers and hobbyists know that not only can parts quality make a difference, but even the physical layout of the components on a board (because of RF susceptibility and other issues) can have a sonic impact?
The first thought might be to make a circuit (for other audio components, as well as preamps and amps) as simple as possible. Seems intuitive – simple circuits might yield greater sonic purity. But then, every part in the sonic “recipe” of the circuit becomes more critical! And when you get into the real world, the simpler-is-better analogy simply falls apart. My second thought is, make the actual product smaller. Minimize the distance between the internal components. OK, maybe not – just try to make a conventional power amp with inadequate output transformers and see how it performs. Although, the remarkably small size of Class D amplification circuitry is a tantalizing glimpse of what can be done. And, have we really explored the limits of what integrated circuit or passive component miniaturization might sound like?
Maybe digital signal processing (DSP) is the answer. In much the same manner that servo mechanisms can control the behavior of loudspeakers, and negative feedback can improve the sound in amplifiers, DSP can correct for all kinds of audio behavior, not the least of which is loudspeaker room-response correction. But perhaps other sonic areas could benefit in ways that no one’s thought of yet.
Speaking of the room, we encounter another major issue. The room the recording was made in won’t match the acoustics of your listening room – one will be overlaid on top of the other. How on Earth will that ever be overcome? Why do the initials “DSP” appear in my head yet again? It would be a daunting if not impossible task – how would we ever quantify the uncountable acoustic signatures of bazillions of recordings and figure out how to eliminate the acoustic effects of each person’s listening room? Call me the Man of La Mancha.
Back to a straight wire with gain. Wouldn’t cables literally be the closest manifestation of this? If only. Cables have resistance, capacitance and inductance as well as other variables like skin effect and (thank you again Galen) different velocity of propagation across the frequency band. Then there are the impedance mismatches between amplifier, cable and speaker, or between the electronics in the system (for example, the preamp and amplifier) to consider. How to eliminate all that? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Wireless signal transmission. But then, you need to have transducers at the signal source and the playback device to convert the wireless signal back to an electrical one, and how much fidelity are you going to lose in the process? (And here you have an argument in favor of integrated amplifiers or all-in-one components that reduce the number of wired connections.) Still, the idea of a completely transparent wireless technology is intriguing.
Getting into the realm of science fiction, how about bypassing an audio system altogether with some kind of a direct neural implant? Cochlear implants are already a reality and research is ongoing, so who’s to say an implanted high-end audio system couldn’t be done someday? Of course, the first thing you’d have to listen to would be Steely Dan’s “Aja.” (Dan fans will get the reference.) Even better – the implant could include a direct brain interface with a streaming service, so all you’d have to do is think of a song and it would play. You could adjust the sound just by thinking, and have a soundstage as vast as the Grand Canyon if you wanted.
I’ve spent all this time considering the hardware. What about us, the actual people who are going to be listening to all this stuff? Could there be some way to put us into a state of mind or affect us in a way that makes our audio systems seem more “real”? I know what you’re thinking…but I don’t know if psychoactive drugs are gonna get you there. But seriously, could a drug be developed that gives us better hearing acuity? Or some kind of audio-enhancement hearing aid that lets us hear our systems with better fidelity?
One last thought. Many industry giants have worked to advance the field of high fidelity. Perhaps some great ideas have been lost, and are waiting to be rediscovered.
As Walt Disney once didn’t say, if you can dream it, you can do it.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Gerd Altmann.
In Part One of this series (Issue 130), Galen Gareis of ICONOCLAST cables and Belden Inc. began an extensive exploration into a critical but not often discussed aspect of cable design: the velocity of propagation (Vp) of audio signals. In this installment, he looks at practical ways to change the velocity of propagation and improve signal linearity for the benefit of better cable performance, and examine other subjects.
What can we do with the insights into the fundamental ability to change the Vp with frequency we examined in the last installment? Can we do something to improve the signal linearity in audio cables?
Here is an example of what might happen in a cable that is designed to have varying levels of Vp differential based on managing the capacitance of the cable. We can do this by varying the size of the insulation, or even the insulation material. For simplicity, we’ll hold DCR the same to isolate the capacitance effects on Vp.
Notice that the change is well within the audio range, and the Vp change is pretty extreme on an absolute basis. (Short cable lengths can allow us to ignore Vp non-linearity; as a first approximation they are too short to have a meaningful propagation time difference.) What if we do not want to ignore this issue, but achieve a better balance in performance by manipulating other cable parameters? If our objective is to make cable better overall, why not? Well, better cable is far more complex and expensive to make, electromagnetically, I grant you that.
In the example above we look at only capacitance. But, inductance is loop area-determined. The farther apart the wires are from one another, which is known as the loop area, the lower their capacitance. But the equations for measuring inductance say that as inductance gets higher, the farther apart the wires are moved. What to do?
A cable’s capacitance can be designed in several ways. If we want to retain a low inductance, which keeps changes in the phase of a signal and its resultant frequency-response anomalies to lower levels, we need to keep the inductive loop area small. Initial phase alignment, the time alignment of signals applied to the cable, in audio cables is small, so many feel it can be ignored, as the initial time-aligned phase isn’t getting too much worse with the Vp speed differences across frequency. This is called group delay, or how much the best to worst signals separate going down a cable after the initial time alignment applied to the cable. A cable shouldn’t make frequency time alignment worse, but it does.
If we consider a square wave, we can get a better idea what group delay and phase delay are, since in order for a square wave to maintain its integrity, its frequency components have to be kept in proper phase alignment with one another.
http://www.iowahills.com/B1GroupDelay.html – A square wave is square only because its frequency components are in proper phase alignment with one another. If we pass a square wave through a device and expect it to remain square, then we need to ensure that the device doesn’t misalign these frequency components. A Group Delay measurement shows us how much a device causes these frequency components to become misaligned.
Keeping the signal in correct phase right from the start is imperative, but group delay, which is caused by the differential in the velocity of propagation, is how a cable makes things worse.
Our objective is to attain the best cable performance possible. How do we do that?
One way is to lower inductance and capacitance. Thicker insulation does not lower inductance; it increases loop area (the space between the wires), which as we have seen increases inductance. To keep the loop area as small as we can for low inductance, but not increase capacitance, we need to use the absolute most efficient dielectric(s) we can. Air is the best dielectric and Teflon is the best material. A low “E” or dielectric constant in an insulating material will allow two wires to be as close together as they can be and reach the lowest possible capacitance.
When E, the dielectric constant, is high, the capacitance is higher at a set RF impedance. We can use the capacitance value calculated at RF through the audio band because L and C are both fixed across frequencies. Only at RF is the Vp=1/SQRT(e). We test RF coaxial cable capacitance at 1 kHz for example.
The graph above shows how capacitance and the velocity of propagation are directly related to the dielectric constant for a 100-ohm RF cable type. The capacitance value can be used at audio frequencies, but not the dielectric’s RF velocity.
Vp = (1/SQRT (dielectric constant)) or Vp = (1/SQRT (L*C))
L and C are constant from low frequencies through RF with a set dielectric material. We’ll look at this in more depth later in the article.
We certainly want to start with the lowest “E” value possible, and not just for its effect on capacitance alone. But in designing a cable, does capacitance have to be as low as possible and then we’re done? Not exactly.
The above equation for low-frequency Vp also has the variable, R (resistance). Resistance is almost always considered a “passive” element. It is thought to be responsible for attenuation only, like turning up and down a volume knob. However, it influences Vp non-linearity, too. Higher DCR flattens the Vp linearity through the audio band – but only if the DCR seen in each cable “circuit” is sufficiently isolated from other electrical paths. The data below shows what happens when resistance is varied, and we hold the capacitance to 15 pF/foot. And, do we even want zero R or C? And what happens if we ignore the Vp differential and lower the resistance as far as we can?
Vp ACROSS LOW FREQUENCY BY AWG
The chart and table above show that if we decrease the wire size, which increases resistance, we can also manage the Vp differential across the audio band. This allows us to use lower capacitance if, if, IF we can utilize higher DCR wire. Designs can use multiple smaller wires, but beware what happens to C and L when we use more aggregate wires to reach a low bulk DCR.
Physics says we can’t speed up the low frequencies, only slow down the higher frequencies. The curve flattens below 250 Hz. But to avoid too high of a capacitance in order to lower the Vp differential, we can also change just the wire DCR, which allows us to lower the capacitance. We balance the R and C.
Let’s look at a few things to better understand what is available to us in designing cable, and where these factors are working. R, resistance, isn’t stable with frequency, as a wire’s skin effect (its self-inductance, which is predominant at higher frequencies) and its proximity effect (inefficiency in passing current, which is predominant at lower frequencies) can cause attenuation that varies with the audio signal’s frequency.
The tables below on inductance and capacitance show a few cables’ response across frequency. They are close to a constant to the first approximation. Do we see this in audio cables?
Does the ICONOCLAST cable really show flat L and C, too? It does. The table below shows R, L and C measurements up to 1 MHz for an earlier design prototype. Notice that Rs (Resistance swept) increases as we go up in frequency. Why? Some of this is caused by skin effect and some is the result of closely-spaced conductor wires. Also, the proximity effect concentrates current flowing in the same directions near the wire surfaces nearest one another, and pushes the current away from the two closely-spaced wires in the that carry current in the reverse direction. Both of these factors superimpose to decrease wire efficiency (less current uniformity across the wires’ cross sections).
ICONOCLAST SPEAKER CABLE PROTOTYPE LUMP ( TOTAL VALUE)/
ADJUSTED TO FOOT ELECTRICALS
Higher frequencies, which don’t require much current, need a larger surface area, not the overall volume of wire, to propagate with low attenuation.
High-current applications need a larger wire volume for low attenuation at low frequencies.
If you have high current and high frequencies, you get a double whammy for attenuation. This kind of wire would be very inefficient.
This chart, which was shown earlier, shows that the impedance curve is non-linear and need three separate approximation equations to characterize three different regions of test performance. The low-frequency curve contains the imaginary component “j” times omega or v. Omega is equal to 2f. We saw this set of variables in the Vp equation at low frequencies too; Vp = SQRT (2v/R*C). Capacitance is directly related to; Vp = 1/ SQRT(E) at RF.
Why is increasing impedance through audio frequencies a problem? Below we see a graphic from one of Paul McGowan’s Daily Posts that shows the energy spectrum of typical music. (I have these types of graphs too, but Paul’s is better than mine!) If we want to match the power transfer of the cable to the musical spectrum we need to do it in the highest average power distribution spectrum we can within with a non-linear sweep distribution.
What cable needs to do is match the impedance where the most power is being distributed, or the power energy spectrum. Where is this region actually? It is below 500 Hz – and smack dab in the region where the impedance curve rises. This makes a true cable-to-low-impedance load match technically impossible to do. It is great to think about, but the physics says we can’t get there. Vp drops too much and too fast as frequency drops raising the impedance when we need to really have it lowered. At “zero” Hz Vp is by definition zero so we know we’re going to see a change with frequency.
AUGUST 31, 2020 by PAUL MCGOWAN
There is a near 1,000 watt peak at 60 Hz. The impedance of a cable can’t be close to 4 to 16 ohms in this region due to Vp non-linearity. It is impossible to do using low frequency open-short impedance tests. The physics says low-impedance measurements through the audio range can’t be done with reference open-short impedance measurements (except open-short is most close to how audio cables work, and need to be measured).
True, and honest impedance graphs of a speaker cable show this to be the case. Better cable can indeed decrease the low-end impedance rise, but not eliminate the physics we are working against that cause that impedance rise. The impedance and phase curves below exhibit proper open-short impedance measurements.
ICONOCLAST is a 0.08uH/foot and 45pF/foot 11.5 AWG aggregate design, all very good values for a complex design with 24 0.20” wires in each polarity, which serves to flatten the Vp curve and as we have seen, thus lower the impedance rise at low frequencies.
Below is what a typical ported-speaker impedance trace actually looks like. The solid line is impedance and the dashed line is phase. Superimpose this onto the above graph. This is the true situation we have to deal with, and illustrates how speaker cable really “matches” with a speaker. We can’t match “8-ohm” cable.
What do some other cables do at low frequencies? The chart below graphs several measured cables. If we look at good old POTS (Plain Old Telephone System)-type cable, we see that we can have cable that measures 600-ohms at 1 kHz! Yes, the dropping Vp differential low-frequency properties increase impedance to about 600 ohms. We’ve decreased that effect to just 270 ohms in ICONOCLAST speaker cable but 2-16 ohms is an impossibly low reality in a referenced open-short test. That’s because capacitive reactance, Xc=1/(2FC) keeps going up (resistance to AC electrical energy flow) as the Vp keeps going down (raising impedance even more).
In the next and final installment we’ll look at resistance, the effects of various dielectrics, wire geometry, skin effect and other considerations, and summarize our findings.
It’s a safe bet that many Copper readers are interested in getting involved with higher-quality audio streaming services and digital music servers if they’re not using them already. In this series, Andy Schaub, a contributor to Positive Feedback and other publications explains the technology behind streaming audio and what’s involved in getting set up with high-quality streaming and digital music playback.
Streaming Audio: A Glossary
In order to gain a fundamental understanding of the principles of streaming audio, we’ll begin with a glossary of terms. We’ll build upon things from there.
In the context of home audio systems, streaming means to receive and play a digital data stream containing “bits” of music from somewhere on the internet (from a source like Spotify, TIDAL, Pandora etc.) or from a local cache of digital data (music) files you have stored on a fixed drive or drives. in other words, there’s no physical media involved; you access and control the source, routing and playback of the music with software.
Server (Distributed Server System)
A server is usually a fairly powerful computer or dedicated audio component that is connected to a LAN (lLocal Area Network) or WAN (Wide Area Network) to perform tasks that are too intense for a client computer or other device that controls music playback. The control device can be a mobile phone, tablet, laptop or other device.
The server (the computer where the music resides or is streamed from) may perform tasks for more than one client and can also deal with information exchange between clients and the routing of music in the form of data files from one point to another. Many servers are called “headless,” because they don’t normally need a keyboard, screen or mouse and be accessed over the web. However, they are still just computers and sooner or later you’ll need to reboot them, so you’ll need to have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse on hand even for such “headless” systems.
High-resolution audio is such a generic term that’s it’s hard to define outside of a context. For our purposes, we’ll assume that high-resolution audio means three things (all in the digital domain).
All this being said, if the music sounds convincingly “real,” then it’s high-fidelity audio, regardless IMHO of the actual measurable resolution or specs.
A remote app is a “lightweight” app (meaning that it doesn’t use a lot of system resources) that runs on client devices to control a music streaming system. Most apps don’t actually stream the music. They just tell the device (the computer or audio component that functions as the music server) where to get the files and where to send them to play. Things gets a little complex after that, which we’ll go over later.
NAS – Network Attached Storage
NAS or Network Attached Storage refers, in general, to any data storage device that quickly and efficiently stores and retrieves data at very high speeds with little to no error or delay. Its purpose is to “serve” music to a system, via the transportation of digital files over a LAN or WAN as opposed to analog electrical signals flowing through a wire.
It’s often an array of fixed drives in a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) configuration, housed in a separate box with a simple operating system and no user interface.
Companies like Synology and QNAP make NAS units that serve both general-purpose and also home-entertainment needs. Melco is one brand that makes NAS products that are targeted specifically towards audiophiles. Some Melco and other brands have a built-in CD drive and audio ripping software to convert CDs to audio files – very handy if you want to transfer your CD library for easy-access listening.
Traditionally, a DAC, or digital-to-analog converter, receives digital audio from a disc transport (such as a CD or SACD transport, or the output from a CD, SACD, Blu-ray or DVD player), using an S/PDIF, AES, USB, optical digital (Toslink) or other “legacy” connection. A network bridge is an interface component that takes the data – packets of information – coming from a server before the data goes to the DAC, sorts through the packets, splices them together, and buffers the information to create a stream of bits that spaces almost every “bit” exactly equally far apart in time to reduce or eliminate distortions. The network then converts that stream to a USB or Ethernet or other) output and then sends it to the DAC. Typically, you can control a network bridge using a remote app.
Simply put, firmware is just software that’s loaded directly onto a chip into ROM (read-only memory). This allows the chip to serve a specific function much faster and more efficiently than if the software was running somewhere else. Some firmware can be updated by the user, some can’t. It depends on the architecture of the chip and if the product can be connected to an external source (such as a USB stick, to name one example) to do the update.
UPnP – Universal Plug and Play
UPnP, Universal Plug and Play, is simply a standard protocol and interface that allows streamers and data storage devices to communicate with each other. It’s a little like USB but at the software level and enables hardware devices to “speak the same language.” It’s sort of like a Rosetta Stone for streaming, applications, and devices. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:
Let’s start digging more deeply.
What Kinds of Software Do Audiophiles Use?
There are many streaming services, systems and devices available, but only some are capable of delivering high-resolution/better than CD-quality audio. However, if you’re new to hi-res streaming, how does one sort it all out?
First of all, we need to step away from thinking of recorded media, whether digital or analog, as “software.” It’s actually data that can be stored, transmitted and reproduced. Software is something that tells a computer how to do something. Audiophile-oriented software tends to fall into one of three categories:
Remote Control Apps
Remote control apps are a good place to begin, because they’ve actually been around for quite a while, mostly as UPnP (Universal Plug and Play)-compliant websites and web pages that began for use in conjunction with early digital music playback devices from companies like Bryston and Magnum Dynalab. Notable current examples include apps like the Aurender Conductor app for Aurender music servers; the Simaudio MOON MiND controller, and Audirvana, Amarra, and Roon Remote, to name just a few.
All of these apps serve the same basic purpose, which is to give you a “rich” visual control interface for choosing and playing your music from a laptop, smartphone, tablet or dedicated hardware device. The music can be streamed from an internet service like TIDAL, Qobuz, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify, internet-based radio stations and so on, or from a music server or NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. Numerous audio companies offer music servers, including Bluesound, Sony, NAD, Meridian, Linn, Innuos, Wolf Audio Systems, Technics and many others. NAS drives are available from a number of audio companies and other manufacturers. You could also just use a hard drive on your computer along with Plug and Play-compatible software – Twonky is one example – and a remote-control app.
Note that while music services such as Apple Music and others all have their own interfaces, dedicated apps like Aurender Conductor are often required to operate an audio company’s particular music playback component. These apps can also have other advantages, such as making all of your various playback devices, such as multiple hard drives and so on, look like they’re coming from a single source on the app – more about that in a bit – which is a very convenient way to access a music collection scattered on different devices.
Confusing? A little! Put together properly, though, you get to choose all the music in the world (almost literally) or albums and tracks from your own collection (in the form of digital files), just by tapping on a screen that might look something like this:
This illustration shows a Roon navigation screen (from the Roon Labs website).
Roon is a distributed music server system in which multiple “target” devices (DACs, basically, nowadays) and several remote apps are “seen” as a single entity on a single Roon interface.
The Aurender Conductor app and the Simaudio MiND app, as other examples, have much the same functionality but are designed to regard the target device itself (in these examples, an Aurender device or a Simaudio product) as the “brains” of the operation and the actual thing that delivers the sound. Alternately, Roon, Meridian’s Sooloos and other systems use a separate server computer as the “brains” to route and process the data files (aka “music”) to the “target,” a DAC of some kind behind a network bridge, or a “streaming DAC” or other connected device, like a Sonos system or Apple TV.
So – the remote apps all, at a minimum, let you control the “brains” (the “engine”) of the system, regardless of whether the “brains” of the system reside in the playback device itself or in the remote app, computer or in all of these.
Next, where does actual signal processing of the digital files occur? It can either take place in a dedicated DAC (digital to analog converter), or in a distributed music server system with built-in DSP (digital signal processing). Some systems are proprietary (the Meridian Sooloos as one example) and some are more universal (like Roon, or sonicOrbiter by Small Green Computer).
Distributed Server Systems
Distributed server systems are those in which the server is a dedicated computer that among other things acts as a “traffic cop” for the system.
In the following illustration, the “brains” can be in the DAC, in the remote app, reside on an independent computer, or be present on all three. It depends on the software paradigm being used.
Technically speaking, all processing and manipulation of a digital data stream is a form of DSP, because it really just means that you are doing things with sequences of numbers. However, DSP means something specific in most audiophile-oriented literature. It refers to the manipulation of said numbers to necessary or even “better” effect (meaning better sound quality), and includes everything from digital volume adjustment (yes, that can involve DSP), to sample rate conversion, to manipulation of the frequency response for room-correction equalization.
If you think of that “engine” as the place that does 90 percent of the audio-related processing (as opposed to non-audio-related functions like controlling the music selection), with the rest being done by the DAC itself, then it makes sense to put that engine onto a separate computer. This allows for much more powerful processing capabilities, the particulars of which will be covered later.
Some people feel that “digital signal processing” – any extra audio “enhancement” or deviation from the original “bit-perfect” data stream – is a bad thing. However, keep in mind that all digital data streams require some manipulation to be heard as music, so where does one draw the line?
All that aside, there’s a major practical advantage in having the server app run on a separate computer: it allows you to have multiple audio streams go to different devices simultaneously. For example, this can allow different family members want to listen to different music at the same time.
There’s a lot of effort nowadays to sell dedicated music-server-specific computers, like the Roon Nucleus, Small Green Computer i5, Antipodes CX, and others, but they’re all really just computers and they all run more or less the same kind of software. The advantage is pre-packaged convenience, which, admittedly, can be a major benefit.
One thing to consider in creating a digital music system: you’ll have to decide if you want to use a computer as a multi-purpose device to share running the audio server app in a distributed system along with other household tasks (like family members surfing the net or playing games), or if you want a dedicated server machine. The advantages of a dedicated computer/music server, of course, are more storage space and access to more and faster processing power without competing with other tasks.
You can configure a computer-based music system to be operated using anything from a smartphone or tablet-based device to a good old keyboard, mouse and monitor. I just use an old, mostly-dedicated 13-inch MacBook Pro and it’s fine.
Firmware and How it Relates to DSP
As we noted in the Glossary section, firmware is simply software that is written for a task, and resides on a specific device or chip in non-volatile memory. Examples of firmware include the software embedded in DAC chips that convert the digital data stream into analog information, aka music.
The illustration is a functional block diagram of an ESS9016 DAC chip. Where is the firmware? It’s everywhere. Almost everything this whole chip does – not just the actual digital-to-analog conversion – is controlled by software embedded within (stored on) the chip itself. How does this relate to the quality of the music that you’ll hear? Consider: even at this level, with just one chip, the signal processing is at least somewhat distributed and probably not actually bit-perfect, not if you at the very least consider jitter, or timing errors in the signal. It’s necessary to have the timing of the zeroes and ones that comprise the digital audio signal correct, which requires a temporal point of reference – a timecode or clock signal – and a very accurate oscillator or word clock. Without such firmware, you have a piece of rock, not a music-playback device. (Outboard master clocks are available for audiophile and recording studio applications.)
What it boils down to is that all of digital audio is essentially digital signal processing. However, let’s assume for the sake of argument that when most people talk about “DSP” with respect to audio, it refers to deliberately altering the audio signal to suit a technical purpose or accommodate someone’s listening preference. Examples of the former would be digital RIAA correction of a phono input, or digital room correction EQ.
To leave you with a final thought for now: computer-based music listening systems can accommodate analog. I once tried ripping an album (converting the vinyl to a digital file) using a very low-noise FET-based mic preamp and a Goldring cartridge. The RIAA correction was all software-based using an app called Pure Vinyl, with no need to employ an outboard phono stage. Either because of less phase distortion, a more accurate RIAA EQ, less signal loss or all of the above, the result was amazing.
Header image: Audirvana app, from the Audirvana website.
Audiophile Archive and Grading Services (AAGS) is a vinyl record-grading and archiving company. They clean, inspect and grade records, certify their grading and record a high-resolution digital audio backup, among other services.
Frank Doris: First, please explain to the readers what AAGS does.
Andrew Hoffman: Our flagship service is to grade and certify valuable records as a third party. We grade the records both visually and audibly, resulting in a final grade called the “AAGS Index Score” (a term we’ve trademarked). We also offer subscriptions to an ultrasonic cleaning service, autograph authentication, repair and cleaning services, and high-quality digital transfers.
I got into hi-fi and audiophile listening as a teenager. I have been a gear head ever since. Looking for good-sounding pressings and better sound has always been my aim; however, it had always remained a hobby. I started my audio career being formally trained by Panasonic, Sony, and JVC as an electronics technician for broadcast television video equipment. My job was to take beat up and worn-out field equipment and completely restore them to like new condition. I would perform modifications including firmware updates, making them even better than they were before they came in.
It was a great business to be in because I was able to exercise my electronic and mechanical “muscles” and see the direct results of my work. I loved it. I moved into sales and consultation after tape technology became obsolete and started designing and installing TV studios. At the same time, I have always been into music, was in a few bands, and worked with the bands in recording studios and did some independent recordings as well.
Then all of those worlds collided after I was ripped off one too many times by private sellers of vinyl records. One record had the wrong disc inside. Another time, the seller had a drastically different opinion of what VG+ condition meant than I did. I looked around for a grading company for vinyl records so that I could have the sellers send the records to them to be graded before I bought them. I couldn’t find one. So, I started developing the business model and in 2019 founded Audiophile Archive & Grading Services.
FD: Can you explain your grading system and process? I understand you grade everything – the record, the cover, everything. And how would you compare your record grading to the Goldmine grading system, which has been adopted as an industry standard?
AH: We actually use the Goldmine grading system to influence our grading parameters. However, when you see a Goldmine-graded record being sold, you either see, for example, a “VG+” grading for the record as a whole, or “VG sleeve, VG+ media,” a separate grading for the sleeve and the disc. Still, there was so much information that was being left out. How does the record actually sound? Does the record include all the original inserts? Posters? Promotional stickers? With this in mind we created the AAGS Index by developing a proprietary algorithm that takes all the elements from each record including visual and audible parameters and outputs the AAGS Index Score™. We have a proprietary program that has been made with our unique grading algorithm. We enter in all of the features of the record, and it tells us what the score is.
The best score you can receive on the AAGS Index scale is 10. To put the score into context with Goldmine grades, 7.50 – 9.50 is approximately (VG+) – (NM-). More information is explained on our blog. We provide a certificate also includes details about the pressing, the mastering engineer, and which pressing it is, among other items of interest.
FD: I noticed you grade sealed records. How do you do that?
AH: Believe it or not, re-sealing records has been done. So, I verify that the sealed shrink wrap is original. I also inspect the quality of the outer sleeve. For example, it is possible to purchase a sealed record with a VG+ sleeve as a result of handling wear.
FD: Can you explain your cleaning process?
AH: We use the Degritter ultrasonic cleaner. We chose it because it is a touch-free solution and because it operates at a modulated frequency in the range of 120kHz that is ideal for cleaning the grooves in records and for not damaging them. It is also quieter so it is easier having multiple machines running at the same time. We run the record through two cycles; one with soap, the second with clean water to rinse the record. Both cycles have an ultrasonic cleaning process, and at the end of the rinse cycle the Degritter machine uses forced air to dry the record. Immediately when the drying cycle is finished, we put the record in a brand new Mobile Fidelity Original Master Record inner sleeve.
FD: Are there people who subscribe to your cleaning service only, and don’t use the record grading service?
AH: Yes. They’re mostly people who love the results of ultrasonic cleaning machines but who cannot afford them. They’ll sign up for our subscriptions. It’s for this reason that we are planning on making ultrasonic cleaning subscriptions available for resale for record stores. However, we have customers that take advantage of both the cleaning and the record grading service.
FD: How do you do the high-resolution digital transfers? What turntable setup do you use, and what kind of D/A conversion?
AH: We use the SugarCube SC-2 from Sweet Vinyl for the analog-to-digital conversion and if the customer wants it, we’ll use the SC-2 to de-click the recording. [The SC-2 MODEL offers a selectable amount of click and pop removal – Ed.] We have found that the quality is excellent, and the workflow is scalable as our work volume continues to increase. We employ a Rega Planar 6 turntable with all of the upgrades and a Rega Ania moving coil cartridge for vinyl playback. We needed a setup that would offer the quality that our customers demand and that is cost effective to duplicate as we buy additional units.
FD: How do you repair damaged sleeves and warped records?
AH: We use standard record flatteners that are on the market. With sleeve repair, we have a cleaner that is safe to use on record sleeves that wipes away dirt and mold spores. A lot of the time, what seems to visually be a permanent stain ends up being some dirt that we can carefully clean off, restoring the sleeve and making it grade higher. We also have processes for repairing sleeves that have separated because of weak glue or that have torn due to impact. With any repairs, the record doesn’t grade as high as a record that is original; however, they grade much higher than if the sleeve was left in poor condition.
FD: What do the services cost, and what is your turnaround time to the customer after receiving their records?
AH: Our grading and certification is $35 per LP (up to a double LP set). Grading sealed records of any kind is $20 per record; grading 7-inch 45 RPM singles costs $29 each. Ultrasonic cleaning is $10 if you would like to just send in one record. If you would like a subscription, we offer five records per month at $25, and 25 records per month at $100. For our subscriptions we offer free shipping and packaging as part of the subscription cost.
Autograph authentication is $25. If we need more time for any service we will provide an estimate for additional time needed at a rate of $25 per hour.
For digital transfers/mastering, it is $25 per hour and before doing the transfer we will provide an estimate based on the project.
Right now we are on a 30-day backlog and with COVID-19, everything is a bit slower, including the mail.
FD: Do you have people helping you, or are you the sole person behind everything?
AH: Right now it is just me and my lovely wife Emily. However, if things keep growing like they have been, we will have to expand. But that is a good thing!
FD: Before you started AAGS, you mentioned that you were burned in buying records that were worse than described. (I think every record collector has had this experience.) Were any of those records rare and valuable?
AH: I can’t recall all of them but yes. It happened enough that I lost enough trust in sellers at shows and online that I began to have less fun collecting. That is why I started the company. I figured that was the only way to instill trust back to the market, while also enhancing the market for highly-collectable records.
FD: Have you encountered skepticism? For example, customers who don’t agree with your grading of a particular record, or people who think you charge too much, or anything else?
AH: I get skeptics all the time. No one so far has disagreed with how I grade the records. However, what I hear the most is, “I can grade records myself.” My response is always, “I’m not you,” and this basic concept is what keeps me in business. What collectors and resellers are starting to understand is that a record that has been professionally graded and certified is actually more valuable on multiple levels. You can charge more for it because it’s been ultrasonically cleaned, played the whole way through, and verified to sound the way it has been graded to sound.
The certificate that accompanies the record includes the record pressing matrix codes, and research on the particulars of the pressing. The record is given a serial number and is permanently logged into the AAGS database. The owner or whoever buys the record can contact us and confirm that the certification is authentic. This goes a long way in terms of instilling trust in the buyer and bolsters confidence to the seller. When someone uses our service, they “get it.” As the word gets out it will demystify our services for the masses. But we are blessed with our success so far.
FD: What is the most valuable record you’ve ever graded or cleaned?
AH: It would have to be a UK first pressing of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, Columbia Records catalog number SAX 2329. It was a beautiful copy, much better than any other example that I had been able to find before.
FD: You started AAGS in 2019. How has business been since then?
AH: The first year was slow. From what we can tell we’re the first to market using this business model and as my answer to your previous question indicated, there were many skeptics. Then things started picking up and as the word got around, we’ve experienced dramatic growth, especially within the last six months.
FD: Are your customers mostly private individuals, or do you also do work for used-record stores and dealers?
AH: Our customer base is mostly private collectors and record store owners. We have worked with auctioneers to certify valuable records in preparation of the auction. We also have a customer base of record labels that require transfers from old records, when the master tapes and safety tapes no longer exist. We transfer these to hi-res digital and clean up any noise while maintaining tonal quality. At special request, we will use some techniques to separate drums, vocals, bass, and other musical elements from the original stereo mix and make minor tweaks to “modernize” the mix and provide mastering to individual elements, to fix any tonal imperfections so that the remix sounds more modern. For example, if the vocals are harsh, we can sweeten up just the vocals, then mix everything back down. We don’t go crazy though.
FD: Have you exhibited at audio or record shows? If not, is this something you might consider once it’s safe to do so?
AH: We exhibited at the Austin Record Convention in 2019. It was very successful. We came back with a bunch of work. We had dealers handing over their more valuable records to be cleaned and graded. We brought one of our Degritter machines and offered ultrasonic cleaning for those attending and charged a small fee. We had a great time and look forward to doing that again once it is safe. We would like to also get involved in exhibiting at some audiophile shows.
FD: How are you dealing with doing business since the pandemic?
AH: All of our business is online, so we have been fine. We are taking all precautions to ensure that we are safe when accepting packages from customers and are sure to disinfect all packaged contents before they go out to our customers. The delays in USPS have been difficult for us and for our customers. However, all has been good; slow, but good. We are taking some steps to change our process to have faster throughput and turnaround times.
FD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AH: We are in the process of producing an encapsulation “slab” for those collectable records that you want to preserve. So keep checking back for updates. Also coming is 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape grading and transfers.
I have come to believe that the solo traveler exploring this planet, unburdened by the constraints, sensibilities or itineraries of others, is able to attract a certain serendipity as a travel companion. This tireless and generous partner moves with us quietly, spending its time creating opportunities and interactions for its host marked by strange coincidences and awe-inspiring moments of beauty – if, of course, we follow its subtle cues.
For many, solo sojourns are often embarked upon between relationships, career changes and graduations. Somehow, traveling alone allows one to swat away old mental cobwebs and make clear the next step to be taken. It’s like therapy, only much more fun.
I rarely visit tourist attractions when I’m out in the world, preferring to get acquainted with each country’s native peoples armed with only a trusty phrasebook. Every even comical attempt to communicate in the local language goes a long way. This practice has proven to create a bridge of smiles and genuine interaction with local residents.
I do my best to keep myself away from tourist herds and their native harassers. In your travels, if you’ve ever been set upon by aggressive touts and vendors who consider western travelers to be walking ATMs, you know.
Choosing the road less touristed has proven infinitely more satisfying and inspiring, guiding me in the exploration of over 30 countries to date.
One of my favorite destinations is Nepal, especially the Himalayas, where Sagarmatha, the Goddess Queen of the Universe, watches over her domain and metes out fierce justice from her high perch. Her mountain abode is better known to westerners as Mount Everest, upon which I spent three weeks in 1990. It was a magnificent, terrifying experience, surpassing even my lofty (sorry) expectations.
I had musings of climbing to her 29,000-foot summit. Really. But only until I found out that an unsponsored vagabond like myself would need to cough up $65,000 for Sherpa guides, porters, pack yaks, food, water, shelter, medicine and enough oxygen tanks for the whole crew, just in case we wanted to breathe up there.
The multinational expedition I did join was a bargain in comparison. Its destination was a peak called Kala Patthar, which, at just under 20,000 feet, would obviate the need for oxygen, as well as the discomfort of walking past the frozen bodies lying along the snowy route to the top, forever resplendent in their bright and expensive gear.
On this expedition were a few Aussies, a Kiwi medical doctor, three young upper-crust British women (who seemed comically out-of-place), a Dutchman and myself, representing North America. Nine of us altogether…a motley assortment of foible-rich travelers, some of whom (OK, it was the mostly the British women) bewildered us with their bickering and complaining, invariably missing the majestic beauty that was all around them. The upcoming weeks were going to be difficult physically, mentally and emotionally – did they not know this? In their defense, apparently, putting on make-up at high altitude helps to stem the apprehension…who knew?
However, when the make-up came out, the Aussies just lost it – immediately taking it upon themselves to rattle the clique with a hilarious and relentless salvo of good-natured ribbing. Branding them as “Whinging Pommes,” which is a smirk-inspiring, playfully derogatory moniker the Aussies used to describe our British climbing companions.
My backpack sported a small, understated Canadian flag patch since I had been living in Toronto at the time. Generally, Canadians are known as being so nice, polite and courteous that ribbing them would be just…wrong. When I shared that I was actually an American, living and working in Canada, I immediately received a fusillade of bad jokes about all things imperfect and intrinsic to the American traveling abroad.
Our weather-worn twin prop 12-person plane took off from Katmandu without fanfare, heading to the trek’s starting point, the mountain town of Lukla. At 10,000 feet, its airport is infamous for being the most dangerous in the world.
Flying in a relatively light, older and slow two-prop aircraft between massive and usually foggy mountains, one should expect some turbulence – threading as we were between and far below these magnificent peaks. I had known that big mountains create wind shear and turbulence in abundance, but to say this was a bumpy ride doesn’t quite do it justice. The British women were crying and at times let out blood-curdling screams that punctuated each violent tilt and wobble that threatened to throw us out of our seats. It was terrifying, but since I was sitting right behind the pilot, my resolve was strengthened by his calm control.
As we flopped our way through these enormous valleys, the mist finally opened into a clear window that allowed us to see Lukla’s airport for the first time. I couldn’t take in a breath. The British women went pale looking through the cockpit window as we approached the shortest landing strip I’ve ever seen, carved precariously into the mountainside with a few buildings flanking it and well, a mountain at its end. A short runway was bad enough, but nothing had prepared me for what occurred next.
A few hundred meters from the runway, the pilot pointed the nose of the plane down (!) and it looked like we were heading for an unscheduled visit to the side of a mountain. With white knuckles grasping my seat cushion I held on to the vision of the calm and steady hands of the pilot just a few feet in front of me. He probably has a family, I thought…probably not a suicidal psychopath at all. I did wonder if he was playing with us so he would have stories to laugh about with his drinking buddies…
Just when it looked like a point of no-return was at hand, he pulled up hard and aimed us at what was most uniquely frightening about this airport – the short runway was uphill! We had to approach the strip from below at just the right angle and then land wheels-down onto a slope rising in front of us, and stop before the rocky monolith at its end.
All of us were covered in nervous sweat and gratitude as our feet found the solid, unmoving grassy ground of the Himalayas.
Header image: Mount Everest as viewed from Kala Patthar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Markrosenrosen.
Jorma Kaukonen has been wowing live audiences for decades with his remarkable guitar skills and his unique take on American roots music, blues, Americana, and of course rock and roll. As a founding member of two legendary bands, Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, Jorma has made a musical mark that is revered as widely among his peers as it is among his fiercely loyal fan following.
During quarantine Jorma has been hosting a weekly free concert from his Fur Peace Ranch on its YouTube channel. The New York Times recently said it was among the top online concerts launched during COVID-19. Out of these sessions has come the inspiration behind a new record, The River Flows, tied to his long-standing collaborations with John Hurlbut. The River Flows was produced by Jorma at the ranch in Meigs County, Ohio and mixed by three-time Grammy winner and Hot Tuna drummer Justin Guip. Together they have made a record filled with fantastic takes on songs made famous by artists they admire, along with a few originals. It’s a celebration of great music, tremendous acoustic guitar work, and a close friendship that began almost 40 years ago.
The record provided a rare moment where Jorma could step back and allow John to take charge of the music. This shift afforded Jorma the opportunity to just focus on his guitar contributions and put forward some really tasty leads that makes these songs sparkle. As he shared with us, this was arguably the first time he has had that kind of artistic freedom since leaving the Jefferson Airplane in 1972.
We caught up with Jorma and talked about the making of the record, the impact of his YouTube concerts, his life-long friendship with Jack Casady, the birth of his signature Martin guitar, and his now infamous relationship with Janis Joplin. We also had a chance to hear about what is coming next when the current touring ban is lifted.
Ray Chelstowski: The New York Times rated your YouTube series Live from the Fur Peace Ranch as a Top 10 COVID-19 webcast series. How did you approach the project?
Jorma Kaukonen: We’ve been doing this since the first week of April. What we have here at the Fur Peace Ranch is a 230-seat theater and a video production facility because we tape performances for our local NPR station; so we had the infrastructure. As soon as it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be touring and that the Ranch probably wasn’t going to be opening for a while then it became like a Judy Garland thing, “let’s do a show!” Except we didn’t have to go to somebody’s barn. We had it all right here and everything sort of evolved from there.
Now as soon as we started doing this the sharks smelled blood in the water. They were like, “we can do this and monetize that,” and I went, “every time I get involved with one of these streaming services to monetize something it never works.” We decided to instead just do these ourselves and put it out for free. In the end we got so many donations that I was able to pay the production staff for the entire time that we’ve been doing this. It just came about because it gave us something to do and reaffirm my identity as a guitar player. One thing led to another and it’s really become an important part of our lives. We got a lot of positive feedback from people and I give it back to them. This gives us a reason to do what we do. So it’s a team effort and we’re thrilled.
RC: You seem to be enjoying building the set lists and playing songs from throughout your career.
JK: So, one of the other things that it’s given me is the opportunity to go back and revisit old stuff and to practice guitar, because performing live isn’t practicing. That’s a different thing all together. I started to rediscover things that I could still relate to that I hadn’t played in a long time. That’s been a really interesting part of the challenge and has also been rewarding in a lot of ways.
RC: This process must have been very freeing.
JK: Yeah absolutely! The other thing that the players out there will understand is that when Jack [Casady] and I are doing what it is that we do we’re really good at it. But since I haven’t had a show to take on the road I’ve had the chance to take some time re-examining some old paths that I haven’t walked on in decades. And that has been rewarding. The other thing is that since the quarantine shows happen to be 90 minutes long, we end up gabbing, so you don’t have to pack it up with songs. I’m spending a lot of time through the week working on songs for the next show, and that’s something I wouldn’t be doing if I was on the road.
RC: So you say that the YouTube series has you practicing guitar even more. Some guys like Jeff Beck leave guitars throughout their house so they can’t avoid practicing. Others like Jonny Lang don’t pick up the guitar until they are ready to head back out on the road. What’s your practice regime like?
JK: Well first of all I have two dogs and a teenage daughter so I don’t leave guitars sitting out. The other thing is that even if it weren’t for the potential guitar disasters I have never been a guy who leaves a guitar out. But the case is never far away. Now I don’t know much about what Jonny Lang would do when he’s not working. And even though me and the guys do electric gigs, I almost never pick up an electric guitar except when we are getting ready to go on tour. So I can really relate to Jonny. But there’s never a day that goes by where I don’t spend a considerable amount of time with my acoustic guitar. I know that a lot of my buddies that primarily play electric guitar don’t agree, but for me that’s where the noose lies. Playing electric guitar is fun to play with the guys, not fun by myself.
RC: Bruce Cockburn has told me that his practicing is now focused on those areas of his playing that have been most impacted by age. Do you use practice in a similar way?
JK: I totally agree with Bruce on that. That’s just a fact of life. Teresa Williams, [musician] Larry Campbell’s wife, is a great singer (great guitar player too in her own right) and has done some vocal workshops for us. One of the things she said that really resonated with me was that as an artist when you’re young you’re bustin’ your ass to learn your craft. Then the train gets rolling, and in your middle years, because you’re still kind of a badass you can coast for a while. Then in the later part of your life as things get physically harder to do you need to practice again just like when you were younger.
I’m very fortunate that even though I’ve had some changes in my hands I have very little arthritis. But there are some things that are more difficult for me to do. I may practice hard-to-do things, but in a performance situation I am going to focus on the things that I know I can execute cleanly, because tone and cleanliness has always been really important to me.
RC: It’s been said that the new record was inspired by your almost 40-year friendship with John Hurlbut. What were you both trying to achieve with these songs and this acoustic approach?
JK: Johnny and I have been have known each other long time and have played together this way for a number of years. At the ranch over the last decade we’ve done performances where I’d say, “throw a song at me and let’s see what happens,” But as I’ve gotten to know his music better, I’ve seen that he has a purity of intent that as an artist I think is somewhat rare. He has no pretensions. He just loves what it is that he does. We’ve spent so much time together that I’ve learned to read him really well and I just thought that Johnny and I needed to do a record.
The Culture Factory got involved and they picked it up immediately. Then we got our buddy Justin Guip, who’s the drummer in electric Hot Tuna, to produce the album and we cut all songs in just two days. There’s no movie magic, there’s no digital editing, there’s no fixing. We just got the performance we wanted and that was important to me. I’m not critical of “brick laying” [overdubbing] with music. We’ve all done it. I just wanted the music to speak for itself.
To accompany someone else in the same kind of head space that I would have used when I was in Jefferson Airplane was utterly liberating in a really profound way. When I do my own thing or play with Hot Tuna I’m doing my thing. But to play with other people where the burden of the song isn’t on me is so liberating that it allows me to do some creative stuff that I probably wouldn’t have done with Hot Tuna.
RC: On the record you include songs by Curtis Mayfield, Ry Cooder, The Byrds, and Dillard & Clark. But the record has a real John Prine vibe to it. When he passed you and John did a tribute to Prine, correct?
JK: Yeah, we did “Angel from Montgomery.” John and I shared a dressing room when we did the “Love For Levon [Helm]” benefit and I had talked about getting him to the ranch. The storytelling frame of mind that John had, or that Guy Clark had, for example, helped create songs that are popular but they’re not pop songs, they just allow you to look into someone’s heart. Every one of those songs that’s on the record is part of a story that I can relate to in a really personal way. But as far as picking the songs, that’s all Johnny.
RC: You have collaborated with many great guitarists. Larry Campbell, G.E. Smith, and Warren Haynes quickly come to mind. What do you look for when picking someone to work with?
JK: I’m not a studio musician and not looking for guitar virtuosity. What I’m looking for is someone who can tell the story in a solid way. When Johnny plays, he’s not an unsophisticated guitar player. His approach is very minimalistic. I think what he was doing was exactly what those songs needed. As a guitar player there are certain common ways we do stuff depending upon your style. Johnny plays with a flat pick and the way he holds it is so bizarre. It’s not like seeing someone with seven fingers (laughs). But it is different and it works.
I kind of take issue with the term “cover a song.” When I was young we didn’t think about writing songs, we just learned songs we liked. To me, covering a song implies doing a song the way the original artists did. Johnny doesn’t do that. He has a song that he likes and it becomes his!
RC: How does someone you collaborate with become part of the staff at the Fur Peace Ranch?
JK: That’s a little bit different. Warren Haynes is arguably one of the greatest living guitar players. He’s also a fantastic singer. Most of us are used to hearing him in an electric format. When he came to the ranch he was teaching an electric class but when he did his show he did it acoustically. When we have guests like Warren the stage is his. Whatever he wants to do is great. If one of our guests wants me to play and they have a place for it I’m happy to do so. If it doesn’t fit into their show I’m happy to step back and listen.
RC: You grew up all over the world. Did that have an impact on the music you’ve made?
JK: I would guess. I’m from the [Washington] DC area, that’s my hometown. Everything that touches our life influences us in some way. Growing up we lived in Pakistan and Pebble Beach; I lived all over the place. I don’t think as I got into music that I set out to make that part of it, but our environment changes us. The fact that I listened to all of those different kinds of sounds no doubt influenced me in some way.
RC: How has your relationship with Jack Casady evolved over time?
JK: We read each other really well because we’ve spent so much time together. I think one of the things that’s really affected our interaction profoundly is that even as kids we always respected each other as people and as artists. We’re really different guys but we’ve never had a band meeting, we don’t argue about stuff, we just always put the art first. And, we listen to each other.
RC: Tell us about your signature Martin guitar.
JK: I’m not a guitar designer and my life has been dedicated to not trying to over think stuff. Like I don’t know the [scale length] of my guitar; it’s not something that’s important to me. I do know that Martin guitars are long-scale guitars and my Gibsons are short-scale. What the actual dimensions are I don’t know. When I started out playing I got a 1958 Gibson J-50 which I still own. That became the soundtrack of my life for many years. If I’d had money I probably would have gotten a Martin because it’s a fancier guitar. One of my snottier friends in L.A. said, “well you know Jorma, a Martin guitar is a guitar that’s has been to music school!“ There’s a certain cachet about Martin guitars but I couldn’t afford one so I got a Gibson. In the 2000s when Martin was doing artist’s models [David] Bromberg got one. I was doing a show with him in the Philly area and I played his guitar. To make a long story short, I knew the guys at Martin and they gave me a decent deal on a Bromberg signature guitar, which was a 4O [OOOO]-sized guitar with normal Martin [scale length]. I started playing the guitar and just loved it. I felt ritzy.
Later I was approached by Martin about doing a signature guitar and I told them I wasn’t a guitar designer; that I know what I want when I see it. I got involved with a tour and I had to fly to Boston. I had my Bromberg guitar and even though it was in a flight case it got a hairline crack up by the peghead. So I sent it back to Martin to repair it and they sent me a similar guitar called an M5. It was much sparser in terms of its appointments than the 4-0. It wasn’t quite as thick body-wise, which is important to guys like us who play plugged in all of the time. I really loved everything about it and decided that I was ready to talk to Martin about the signature guitar thing. So we went to [the Martin factory in] Nazareth and we stopped at the pizza place across the street from the Martin guitar factory and we designed the Jorma guitar on a napkin. I said that I pretty much wanted it to be like this M5 guitar but we could use Style 30 appointments and we did some fancy stuff around the sound hole.
RC: This year there is quite a lot planned to celebrate the life of Janis Joplin. Can you tell us a bit about The Typewriter Tape recording you did with her in 1964?
JK: I wound up meeting Janis the first weekend I was in the Bay area; we met down in San Jose. As soon as I heard her sing I realized that I was in the presence of greatness. I mean, keep in mind that I was only like 21 years old but I [had] just never heard anything like that. I had listened to Bessie Smith and others but this was one of my contemporaries and she was just as good as any of them. At the time she was living in San Francisco and I was living in Santa Clara. None of us had cars so even being 50 miles away from each other might take the entire day on a bus to get together. So whenever Janis would come down for a gig she would hop on a bus. She had a gig at The Coffee Gallery which was up on Grant Street.
She came down to rehearse and my first wife (may she rest in peace) was writing letters home. We taped everything in those days because I had just gotten a tape recorder and that was a big deal back then. So we fired the recorder up and my ex was typing a letter home and Janis and I were playing. What’s so funny is that people ask if we realized that what we were doing would become something so iconic. Of course we didn’t. It’s just a raw version of Janis at that time. Now I’ve gotten to know Janis’s sister casually over the years and she told me that Jani was constantly reinventing herself. Most everyone knows Janis the rock star. The Janis I knew during that period of time was Janis the blues singer. As time went on she became someone else and that’s OK. But she remains maybe the greatest blues singer I’ve ever played with.
RC: What are your plans for when touring opens up again?
JK: We are going to keep the quarantine concerts going for as long as we can. We’re even talking about pre-recording some so we can do it when I [resume] touring. But for guys like me there’s nothing like that feeling of a live audience and the energy that you get back from them.
With the advances in digital audio technology of recent years, is there still a role for analog audio? In my previous article (in Issue 131), I argued that many recordings made during the early decades of stereo still rank as some of the best recordings ever made, from both a technical and an artistic point of view. Many of these recordings have been digitally remastered since the early 1980s. However, early Red Book CD recordings are inadequate as a high-quality music source. The more recent remasters in high-definition digital formats have improved tremendously, and can be even better than LPs due to the avoidance of compression and other artifacts specific to LPs. That said, even with high-definition digital formats, some people can still detect certain characteristics of digital sound that they find objectionable. Many new releases of old analog materials have also been remastered in such a way so as to accommodate how most music lovers today listen to music, which is through earphones, computer speakers and car stereo. The original analog master tapes should therefore come closest to the original intent of the artists, without whose permission the recordings would not have been released.
Talking about permission, there are certain recordings that were released over the objection of the artists or after their death. I once attended an autograph session after a piano recital by Krystian Zimerman. When I handed him an LP of Brahms Piano Sonatas, he asked me if I could sell it to him. Rather surprised, I asked him if this was a rare LP that even he did not own, and he explained that he had objected to the release of the recording but he was overruled by Deutsche Grammophon, his record company (it was early on in his career). He therefore tried to buy them all back and have them destroyed! I then asked him if he would autograph my copy, and he reluctantly put a tiny autograph on the corner of the jacket (see photo). When my wife handed him another recording, a CD, he put a large signature right across the cover!
Another example is the celebrated recording of Clifford Curzon and Benjamin Britten playing Mozart Piano Concertos no. 20 and 27. Sir Clifford withheld permission for release, and the record was only released after his death. The recording is wonderful, so the reason for his objection remains unclear. I just wonder how many of the reissues today would get the nod from the original artists?
I got into open reel tapes for practical reasons. I started making recordings in the late 1990s after getting to know a couple of friends who had secured the permission to make recordings of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Professional digital recording equipment was expensive in those days and in my view not very good, and one of the partners was really into digital anyway, so we just let him take care of it. Professional analog tape recorders were cheap since all the pros were switching to digital. I bought a Nagra IV-S with a QGB 10.5-inch reel adapter for 2,000 pounds at a BBC sale and had it professionally refurbished. This Nagra and the less reliable Stellavox SP9 were the most portable professional open reel tape recorders available.
The reliability of the Nagra is legendary; there is an anecdote of a reporter who dropped the recorder from a helicopter about 100 feet off the ground while covering the Vietnam War. When he retrieved it after it was safe to land, the machine was still recording and with no more damage than just a cracked lid! The indestructibility of these professional machines means they remain a good option for audiophiles, which I will address in my next article. I also managed to buy a large lot of new blank tapes at a great price when Quantegy (formerly Ampex) went out of business. Even after the cost of digital recording and playback equipment has dropped, open reel tape still remains my primary playback source due to its superior sound quality.
The magnetic tape recorder was invented in Germany and was used for recording the speeches of the Führer (and other purposes). This enabled him to make high-quality recordings of speeches for radio broadcasts at the safety of his hideouts while making everyone think that he was in Berlin, as he was paranoid about assassinations. My physics teacher worked at the GCHQ during the war (the British equivalent of the NSA in the US); he was part of the team that developed radar, and he was ordered to investigate the tape recorders retrieved from Germany after the war. Jack Mullin, a US military engineer given the same task, went on to work with Ampex (at the time a small manufacturer of aircraft motors) with the knowledge he gained from these German machines and seed money from Bing Crosby, to develop and distribute tape recorders.
These new machines were first employed by the film industry, but the music industry quickly adopted the technology, and commercial pre-recorded tapes started to appear in the late 1940s. Tapes were much more expensive than LPs even in that era, and were meant for serious audiophiles. These commercial tapes were 1/4-inch wide on 7-inch reels, ran at 7.5 inches per second (ips) and initially had two tracks for stereo in the 1950s. Four-track tapes were introduced in the late 1950s and these tapes contained twice as much program material, but at the expense of a lower signal to noise ratio due to the track width being halved. The tapes were copied at high speed, which compromised sound quality. Nevertheless, when played back on properly maintained machines, these old tapes can still sound excellent. After the much more affordable (but quality-wise much inferior) compact cassettes appeared, open reel tapes faded out of the consumer market. However, analog open reel tape remained dominant in professional audio until the advent of digital recording (and even then, early digital recorders used reel-to-reel magnetic tape).
Open reel tape has never really gone out of fashion in some corners of the audiophile community. Some people, such as the late Tim de Paravicini (see our article in Copper Issue 127) always demonstrated their equipment with tapes as the music source. These tape aficionados exchange their own recordings with each other, and some studio engineers who possess master tapes of commercial recordings can sometimes be persuaded to make copies. Old pre-recorded open reel tapes can still be found on eBay and if you’re lucky, at flea markets, thrift shops and elsewhere.
Paul Stubblebine, a renowned mastering engineer, came up with the idea of licensing commercial recordings for release on open reel tape format. Together with mastering engineer Michael Romanowski (both of Paul Stubblebine Mastering) and tube amplifier designer Dan Schmalle, he founded The Tape Project in 2007. Recordings were painstakingly transferred in real time to 1/4-inch tape running at 15 ips, which is the professional standard for distribution. They bet on having enough audiophiles with an interest in this format to sustain the business, which was a brave decision, as there were almost no open reel tape machines in production at that time (the only company producing machines that I was aware of at the time was Otari, and these were professional recorders). They sold the tapes initially for too little in my opinion; the first subscription series of 10 titles (20 tapes) cost $2,000 (in 2007), which barely covered the cost of the material.
The sound quality of these tapes is stupendous since The Tape Project obtains the original studio masters from the record companies, makes 1-inch 2-track running masters directly from these precious original tapes, and then copies off the running masters with a bank of Ampex recorders. The tapes sold to customers are therefore the same generation as what is typically used to produce LPs. Just keeping the recorders in top condition must be a full-time occupation. They also did something nobody else has managed to do since; they persuaded Universal Music to allow them to release two Kenneth Wilkinson recordings from the Decca catalog. This license for a time-limited release was negotiated by the legendary Winston Ma of First Impressions Music, but the license has already expired, making these two tapes collector’s items. In addition to the two Decca titles, Waltz for Debby by Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus are must-haves. Both are still available, but there is a waiting list as the company’s production capacity is limited, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the years after The Tape Project started selling pre-recorded tapes, many others have joined in. These producers can broadly be divided into companies that license commercial recordings, record labels that release materials from their own archives and record companies that produce new materials specifically for release on tape (as well as LP and digital).
The first category includes Analogue Productions, one of the leaders in the field of audiophile reissues. Owner Chad Kassem has been reissuing LPs from major record labels, especially RCA and Mercury, since the 1990s. He works with the best engineers in the business, and took over the mastering facility of Doug Sax’s The Mastering Lab after the celebrated engineer passed away. With his deep connections in the music business, it is unsurprising that Chad was able to secure licenses for some of the most desirable recordings ever. The list of tapes released so far reads like Harry Pearson’s (The Absolute Sound) Super Disc list.
While the original issues of some of these LPs, in my opinion, do not live up to the hype, hearing the tapes leaves me in no doubt about the greatness of these recordings, and to lament the fact that LPs made during the 1950s and 1960s were too primitive to show the recordings at their best. For the tapes, the original 3-track masters are mixed down to create stereo production masters, which are then used to make the commercial copies in real time. When listening to the tapes, one notices for the first time details that are missing from the LPs (at least on my system). The sheer scale and weight of the sound is breathtaking. Instruments take on a solidity and presence as if the soundstage is a relief sculpted from granite. The rich and natural tonal palette, the awe-inspiring dynamics, the subtle nuances of musical inflections and the ambience together draw the listener into the music.
The one word to describe the sound is effortless. Crescendos going from the quietest to the loudest SPLs do not show any sign of strain, and seem not to have any limit. There is a naturalness that makes you forget you are listening to a recording. Stereo sound just doesn’t get better than this. The one thing I have noticed about the Analogue Productions tapes is that they are transferred at a higher level than usual, taking advantage of the extra headroom of modern tape formulations. Ten RCA “Living Stereo” recordings have been released, including audiophile favorites such as The Power of the Orchestra, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Scheherazade and Lieutenant Kije, Stokowski’s Rhapsodies and the incredible Witches’ Brew. My other Analogue Productions favorites include Janis Ian’s Breaking Silence and Hugh Masekela’s Hope.
Another source I came across more recently is Reel to Reel Tapes Russia. This company has licenses to reissue some of the recordings from the vast Melodiya catalog. Melodiya was the Soviet state-owned record company and monopolized the recorded output of all the great Soviet artists including Richter, Gilels, Kogan, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Mravinsky, Kondrashin and others. Many of these recordings were released by EMI in the West. I was particularly attracted to the recording of Leonid Kogan playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, which is one of the most sought-after vintage classical LPs in existence. The sound quality of some of the Melodiya recordings is excellent, and the company apparently continued to use vacuum tube equipment until the 1980s. I guess their engineers were not happy with the sound of early transistor equipment!
Horch House is an Austrian company with a small catalog of tape reissues from various music labels. I bought several titles when the company first launched in 2014, before the brief hiatus when they reorganized their business. Their reissue of William Steinberg conducting Holst’s The Planets on DGG is excellent. The reissue of the famous Eterna recording of Carmina Burana is a bit disappointing; the solo parts were well recorded, but I feel the full chorus sounds compressed. These two reissues are no longer available. The two other titles I own, RCA’s The Reiner Sound and Itzhak Perlman playing the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, are still available. However, The Reiner Sound is not at the level of those RCA Living Stereo recordings reissued by Analogue Productions. The sound does not have the same level of presence and impact as the best examples. I feel the Living Stereo recordings made by Decca on behalf of RCA (mostly engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson), which The Reiner Sound was not, are generally superior. The Perlman Brahms: Violin Concerto is good, but EMI recordings of that era are less consistent sound quality-wise than the Decca recordings.
Two small record labels have made available their analog recordings in tape format. The copies are made to order. Fonè is an Italian company that makes mostly classical recordings, most notably of the violinist Salvatore Accardo. All the recordings are produced in-house, with a purist approach of simple micing and minimal manipulation of the sound. The other company is Opus 3, a Swedish audiophile label that has been producing classical, jazz and blues recordings since the late 1970s. Their approach is also purist, relying on the natural acoustics of the recording venue to achieve sonic realism. I have some LPs from these two companies from years past, but I have no experience with their tapes. Judging by the quality of their LPs, I expect their tapes to be of an equally high standard.
There are more than 30 other small music labels that produce new analog recordings that are issued on tape, LP and digital formats. Yarlung Records and UltraAnalogue Recordings are the two best known, and both produce classical recordings. As their recordings are new, and the tapes are not exactly cheap, I would recommend downloading them in digital format first to familiarize oneself with the recordings before committing.
Here is a list of companies currently producing pre-recorded open reel tapes: https://thereeltoreelrambler.com/resources/where-to-buy-music-on-tape/
There might be millions of reels of music tapes in the archives of record companies, mastering studios, radio stations and private collectors. Studio masters are closely guarded by record companies, but the fire at Universal Studios in 2008 that destroyed hundreds of original master tapes proved that security is perhaps not as good as it should be to safeguard these cultural treasures. On the other hand, safety masters, distribution masters and production masters are much more readily available. One comes across sellers on eBay claiming that the tapes they sell are genuine “master tapes,” but beware of fake “master tapes” copied from digital sources or even LPs. Some of the genuine master tapes for sale are not in good shape, and require restoration by a specialist before they can be played. The glue used on tapes produced from the 1970s to the 1990s to bind the magnetic layer absorbs moisture and develops a fault called “sticky shed syndrome.” Also, be aware that some production masters were equalized for transfer to LPs; production masters meant for cassette or CD production can be a safer bet.
A problem that hinders the adoption of this format is the cost of new tape reissues, which is now generally around $225 per reel, and each reel normally only accommodates one LP side’s worth of music. However, ultra-premium LP reissues are not cheap either. The UK-based Electric Recording Company releases 300 copies of each of its title at around $500 per LP, and they sell out within days, with some of these reappearing on the secondary market for as much as $1,500 each.
Audiophiles are willing to spend five- or even six-figure sums on record playback equipment. However, the sound quality of even the best turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination will always be confined by the technical limitations of the LP format. Although I have more than a thousand LPs, there are only a few dozen of them that I play regularly. In that context, I would rather spend the money on the best format for these recordings. And as we shall see in the next article, it is possible to buy an open reel tape machine that will substantially outperform a top turntable system at a fraction of the cost of the latter, and with better consistency of performance. After all, the music on your LPs was most probably transferred to lacquer with one of these tape machines (except for direct to disk LPs), so the sound of the LPs is unlikely to be better than that of the tapes played back through these machines, however outstanding the turntable system used. In the next article, I will discuss how to acquire a domestic tape playback system.
Header image of UHER SG631 analog tape recorder courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Erhard Barwick, cropped to fit format.
Nicky Hopkins is hardly an unknown entity in the world of rock music. A stellar piano/keyboard player, even the most modest rock fan is likely familiar with his work. Think about the opening bars to the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” or “Monkey Man.” Or how about Hopkins’ beautiful piano solo during the bridge in “Angie?” Many, many years after collaborating on John Lennon’s song “Jealous Guy,” Yoko Ono commented, “Nicky Hopkins’ playing is so melodic and beautiful, that it still makes everyone cry, even now.”
Hopkins’ style indeed was always considered melodic and never flashy, and with contributions to so many iconic albums and songs, he unquestionably is an integral part of the history of rock music. What’s probably unbeknownst to many Copper readers, however, is how deeply entrenched Hopkins work is across such a wide range of 1960s and 1970s recordings, a prolific period when Hopkins was the most sought-after session keyboardist in the business, and whom many (still) consider the world’s best.
How many musicians can say they made invaluable contributions to classic tracks from the Beatles, Stones, the Who, Kinks and Jeff Beck? Absolutely none, other than Nicky Hopkins. How about contributions to solo albums for all four Beatles? Then throw in Ella Fitzgerald, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel and Joe Walsh, and you can see how diverse Hopkins’ musical contributions were, and not so easily stereotyped.
Of course, many music fans are familiar with legendary “studio bands,” or groups of session musicians that recorded as a team for many well-known artists during the 1960s and beyond. These studio bands included the Wrecking Crew, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Booker T & the M.G.’s, the house band for Stax Records. But these were all group collaborations, as invaluable as they may be.
Here’s just a small sample of albums Hopkins contributed to over the years:
Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street
Beatles: The Beatles (The “White Album”); John Lennon – Imagine, Walls and Bridges; Paul McCartney – Flowers in the Dirt; George Harrison – Living in the Material World, Dark Horse; Ringo Starr – Ringo, Goodnight Vienna
The Who: My Generation, Who’s Next, The Who by Numbers
Kinks: The Kink Kontroversy, Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
Jeff Beck Group: Truth, Beck-Ola
Jefferson Airplane: Volunteers
Quicksilver Messenger Service: Shady Grove, Just For Love, What About Me
Steve Miller Band: Brave New World, Your Saving Grace
Carly Simon: No Secrets
You can also add-in Hopkins’ highly melodic piano on Joe Cocker’s soulful rendition of “You Are So Beautiful,” a song written by another great keyboardist and child prodigy, the late Billy Preston. For all intents and purposes, this beautiful arrangement is just Cocker’s vocals with Hopkins’ piano underneath.
Nicky Hopkins was born outside of London in 1944 in the middle of an air raid drill, a stark contrast to the reserved personality he would be known for. Built wisp-thin, Hopkins had a lifelong struggle with poor health, including battling Crohn’s disease and having many surgeries. Hopkins was bedridden for an unconscionable nineteen months during his late teens after surgery to remove a kidney and gall bladder. A love for the bottle unfortunately added to his poor health. It probably wasn’t particularly helpful that during his formative years, Hopkins’ family lived close to a Guinness brewery, where his father worked as an accountant.
Hopkins exhibited prodigy-like talent at a very early age. After winning a local piano competition, he received a scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music. He studied there from the ages of 12 to 16 and was a contemporary of another scholarship recipient by the name of Reginald Dwight, a.k.a. Elton John.
His classical studies were interrupted and ended prematurely when he began performing with prominent local bands (i.e., Screaming Lord Sutch) that ultimately lead to an early ’60s residency with British R&B legend Cyril Davies at London’s famed Marquee Club. From that exposure, demand for Hopkins’ session work began to blossom.
Hopkins’ formal training would later serve to be an asset in the studio, particularly to legendary producers George Martin (the Beatles), Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones), Shel Talmy (the Who, the Kinks) and Simon Napier-Bell (Jeff Beck). Said Talmy of Hopkins at the time, “Nicky Hopkins is the most promising pianist/arranger on the music scene today; that goes for both sides of the Atlantic!”
If a producer thought a change in key was needed for a song, it was often relegated to Hopkins to develop new chord charts for other musicians who were only self-taught. Composer/arranger and ex-Manfred Mann guitarist Mick Vickers once said of Hopkins, “there are people who read music and don’t make things up, and people who make things up and don’t read music, so when you put them together it’s a powerful thing.”
When asked to describe his playing style, Hopkins offered, “I can hear things in my playing that sound a bit like Albert Ammons [the boogie woogie, jazz-style pianist popular in the late 1930s] or in a rare instance maybe, like Rachmaninoff. I don’t know if I sound like A, B, C, or D. I’ve assimilated so many peoples’ styles of playing over the years, plus, I guess, my own too.”
Reminiscing on the session and mix for the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Hopkins had this to say: “the piano is way too low. I was playing the piano with my left hand and the organ with my right at the same time on that track. I always disliked guitar players’ ears, which is what most engineers have.” He then mockingly added with a laugh, “the piano is so difficult to mix, so we’ll just turn it down.”
There were occasional periods when Hopkins was a permanent member of a group, such as The Jeff Beck Group, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the short-lived but excellent band Sweet Thursday (which also included Alun Davies, Jon Mark and others). He did manage to play with the Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock in 1969, in addition to the Stones’ infamous and debauchery-laden 1972 North American tour. However, road opportunities for Hopkins were fleeting, as either the bands he was in would break up or his ailing health would get in the way.
As a session musician, Hopkins frequently found himself working side-by-side with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, both also well-known and highly regarded session players at the time. Given their friendship and mutual respect, it is said that Hopkins actually turned down an opportunity to join an early version of Led Zeppelin.
As a “hired gun,” Hopkins only received album liner note credits, and sometimes even then he was shortchanged. Session players frequently make valuable contributions to a song, with a riff here or a chord change there, without receiving the credit or recognition they deserve. Hopkins never received royalty payments, outside of the generosity of Quicksilver Messenger Service and their management company for select recordings.
Session work depends a lot upon a player’s chemistry with the primary artist, his or her style of play and what kind of contributions an artist is seeking, amongst other things. Sometimes the artist and producer know exactly what they’re looking for, sometimes they don’t. Ideally, they’re open to input, especially if a session musician has chops and a strong reputation to go with it.
The Kinks’ Ray Davies, who Hopkins didn’t have a particularly good relationship with, reflected on the band’s Face to Face sessions by noting, “Nicky Hopkins looked so thin and pale, it was as if he had just been whisked out of intensive care and dragged in on a stretcher so he could play piano on our track.” Wow, way to dole out the compliments, Ray!
In 1966 The Revolutionary Piano of Nicky Hopkins was released, an instrumental album designed to showcase Hopkins as a solo artist. Producer Shel Talmy thought it was a good idea to turn Hopkins into a frontman. The LP consisted of a strange and eclectic mix of songs, including a somewhat jazzy interpretation of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” The LP did not sell particularly well, in part due to lack of record label support.
In 1973 Hopkins attempted another solo project with the LP The Tin Man Was A Dreamer, a Columbia records release that I still own. In this effort, Hopkins flexes his pipes on lead vocals, accompanied by a slew of well-known musicians and friends, including George Harrison, Mick Taylor, Klaus Voorman and Bobby Keys. Although Tin Man received some decent reviews, I can only say that perhaps it’s an acquired taste. A third solo album, No More Changes, was released in 1975.
In sum, one can be a great musician, which Hopkins unquestionably was, but being a great songwriter requires an entirely different skill set.
In 1994, after complications from intestinal surgery, Hopkins sadly succumbed to his poor health at the young age of 50. When news of Hopkins’ death reached old friend Ian McLagan of Small Faces fame, he and his wife decided to go for a drink to celebrate his life. When they entered a bar for a round of beers, without any action or provocation on their part, the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” came on the jukebox, followed by an unbroken succession of songs Nicky Hopkins played on. When McLagan asked the barkeep if she knew who Hopkins was, assuming there was a connection, she said she’d never heard of him and that if nobody put money in the jukebox; it played its own random selections. It was pure karma, and they were thrilled!
In 2019, on what would have been Hopkins’ 75th birthday, London’s Royal Academy of Music posthumously bestowed a scholarship in his name and honor.
Nicky Hopkins is an unsung hero, a keyboardist of extraordinary talent whose contributions to music will live on today, tomorrow and the next day. It’s a legacy that’s quite well deserved.
Header image of Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1970 (Hopkins is second from right) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.
We live in good times. As I sit here in front of my system this evening, I appreciate what decades of progress have brought us. I discovered an artist on Qobuz and streamed an album over my system this evening. I also have a couple of favorite CDs queued up – CDs that I have ripped to a server and can play back through my network. And vinyl? Some evenings, sure, I’m happy to spin my records, especially since many were never (and will never be) released digitally; some I have recorded to digital so I can play them at any time, anywhere I happen to be.
I’ve been a music listener my entire life, and my tastes have evolved along with the physical formats available. I was playing records and a handful of pre-recorded cassettes back in the 1970s. I saw CDs emerge as a predominant format, starting in the early 1980s. I’ve watched other formats come and go, dabbled in a few myself, and stuck with what I knew best – LPs and CDs.
I first started on a digital renaissance back in the 2000s, as I was ripping a handful of CDs to use on early MP3 players. I also envisioned that the next major format for music after CDs would have no moving parts, perhaps playing music from a copy-protected memory chip (like an SD card). I never imagined, though, that the latest format wouldn’t even be physical – we now download music as digital files.
Listening options that weren’t possible decades ago are available now. Storage is cheap, so we can store many music files on a hard drive or server. We now have enough bandwidth coming into our homes to stream hi-res music and a few 4K video streams simultaneously. The time became ripe for music streaming when these technologies (and their affordability) converged.
Streaming is embraced by the masses these days. For many, it is their primary if not their sole source of listening to music. But my focus here is not the mass market – mine is on the discerning music collector who may own music in a few different formats, whether vinyl, CD, tape or whatever else they’ve collected over the years.
I had considered trying streaming for years, but never could get past the poor sound quality. Today, some services offer lossless music. I was glad, after trying (and disliking) the others, to see Qobuz finally make an entrance into the US market, with lossless streaming at CD resolution and in true high-resolution.
Streaming has enhanced my listening experience by having so much music available. I am a music buyer and will download a title I like, or I will find it on vinyl. I have a few different ways in which I discover new (to me) music, and streaming has changed that for the better.
Rewind to the mid-1980s when CDs were gaining in popularity. I would buy at least one CD per week and often two, as there were new releases and reissues that interested me. My trips to Sam’s Jams every Friday evening were a routine I still miss to this day, hanging out with fellow music lovers, listening to new releases on their system (the store was cool enough to have an old tubed Dynaco system powering the speakers in their jazz room).
What I every so often found was that the new releases which caught my ear at the store ended up being duds. Maybe only one or two tunes appealed to me. Or the album or artist never engaged me. At any rate, they’d be stored away on the CD rack, skimmed over every time I looked for something to play. (The same happened with LPs as well, long before the CD era.)
With streaming, I can avoid the duds. I can play an album as many times as I want, to see if it grows on me or if I find I don’t care for it. If I read a good review of an album, or get a recommendation from a friend, I can go home and give the music a play on my own time to see if I can live with (or without) it.
I also get in moods where I explore a wide swath of music. For the past few months, I have been exploring the CTi Records catalog. Streaming has been a perfect way to sample a broad range of these albums, and I have added several to my collection because of this. Last winter, I was getting deeper into the many orchestral recordings that Bernard Haitink conducted throughout his career and found many recordings available to experience his work.
There are two additional ways I find streaming useful. First, if visiting an audio show, audio dealer, or a friend’s house, having access to music I am familiar with is invaluable for auditioning components and systems. I no longer need to tote a stack of records or CDs with me, or hope that they have it on hand.
Travel is another way I use streaming. I used to fill up a CD carrier or two on a trip, and most of the time didn’t like most of what I chose to bring with me once I was out on the road. Granted, I use both an SD card and USB memory stick in the car these days (about 650 GB of lossless music, some in hi-res), but when I settle down at the hotel or condo, I have access to much of the music I already own. My CDs stay safely at home now.
Debunking Common Arguments Against Streaming
With streaming so readily available now, why are some music listeners so opposed to it? I’ve come across a few arguments. Some are myths or misunderstandings. Others are (let’s be honest here) stubborn adherence to the past and a refusal to embrace the future. Below are a few common arguments I see regularly about streaming in general.
I don’t want to listen to lossy MP3s over streaming!
If you subscribe to the mass market streaming services, you will get lossy files. Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music are all lossy with their mainstream offerings; Amazon does have an HD version of their service, but their streaming service will only play back on proprietary software with little hardware support, certainly nothing that many audiophiles can integrate easily into their systems.
Today, there are services like Deezer, Tidal and Qobuz which offer lossless CD-quality or better streaming. Qobuz goes one better and offers pure and genuine hi-res streaming up to 24-bit/192 kHz. On top of that, you can often integrate some of these services into equipment that many Copper readers already have access to. Anyone using Roon, for instance, can integrate Qobuz and Tidal streaming into their own personal library.
Streaming costs too much! I’m not spending $15 per month on a subscription service!
Based on what I wrote earlier, this argument falls flat. How many times have you purchased an album, with good intentions, that was a dud? I have boxes downstairs with a few hundred good intentions. I don’t miss the albums, but I do miss the money I spent buying them. Streaming would have avoided this, by allowing me to preview the recordings beforehand.
Even in a broader sense, consider your personal budget. $15 is the cost of lunch out a couple of times per month, or a few fancy coffees from the barista on the corner. We spend hundreds on tweaks that do little or nothing, but can’t part with $15 per month for the music to feed the system? It’s a weak argument.
Streaming is for kids who use phones and earbuds to listen to music, not audiophiles!
We won’t get into the methods for streaming music here, but there are multiple ways to play back your lossless streaming music through your system. Sure, maybe the younger set uses earbuds to listen with their smartphones. But that thinking is a decade out of date now. There are dozens of components available now that can stream music into our systems in full, lossless quality.
Streaming services have nothing I listen to!
Do streaming services have everything, especially in hi-res? No. They can’t. Each streaming service negotiates with labels and distributors to get licensing deals to provide customers with the music. Despite Qobuz being the newcomer, their licensing has broadened over the past couple of years, and there is rarely something I can’t find on Qobuz that others might have. Each service may have a handful of releases that are unique to them but for the most part, the bulk of what is available on one service is available on all of them.
I’ll never play music I can’t hold in my hand!
This is the one argument that makes me shake my head at the stubbornness of collectors. Nobody is taking away your records. Nobody is telling you that you can’t listen to your CDs anymore. Nobody is preventing you from buying new music in any format you see fit.
Streaming is how you can listen to that brand new release on release day, without complaining daily that Amazon hasn’t delivered it yet. Streaming is the way you can listen to that latest release or reissue everyone else is raving about to see if you’d like to own it, or decide for yourself that it’s overrated or not to your taste. Streaming is also convenient for those wondering if certain versions of songs (different mixes, takes or performances; mono vs. stereo versions; different masterings, etc.) appear on certain recordings, without having to buy an entire CD of redundant music you may already own.
Streaming services don’t pay the artists!
That is a valid argument – we all know that today’s model of music consumption and compensation is in a sad state. Try to think of it this way: even for all that music you sample once or twice, those plays generate a (very) small amount of income for the artist and composer. Given all the ways we can access “free” music, at least it’s something. And even there, we should be supporting our favorite artists by attending their gigs (when those come back) and buying their new releases and merchandise (preferably from their own online stores, where they make an extra profit).
Choosing from Phantom Fears or Enjoying the Music
The short version? You have nothing to lose by trying streaming. Most streaming services have free trials. You can also find ways to temporarily try streaming through your main system. (For instance, if your DAC has a USB input, you can often attach your computer, tablet or smartphone to the DAC and stream music from an application the streaming provider offers for your device.) Don’t just sign up for the trial and then forget about it. Use it. Daily. Try searching for music you’re curious about. Read recommendations and reviews on Qobuz (which creates its own editorial content). Go on a “music bender” and explore a lot more music that you may never have been aware of. Take a chance and look outside your tunnel vision!
Streaming, for me, isn’t about the technology or the concept of it. It’s about expanding my enjoyment of music – something that streaming has done to enhance my musical experience in this all-too-short lifetime.
Octave Records just issued its latest release on March 5: its first jazz album, Say Somethin’ by trumpet player Gabriel Mervine. The album of originals and standards was recorded live with no overdubbing on the Sonoma pure DSD recording system by Mervine and his quartet, to capture the spontaneity and interplay between the musicians with stunning fidelity and realism.
Gabriel Mervine began his professional career at age 13. He’s a member of the Colorado Jazz Repertory Orchestra and has worked with Natalie Cole, Christian McBride, Terence Blanchard, the Temptations, the Who, Fred Wesley and many others. On Say Somethin’ he’s joined by Tom Amend (piano), Seth Lewis (upright bass) and Alejandro Castaño (drums) The music ranges from the upbeat grooves of the title track, “1964” and “Furor” to more contemplative songs like “Friends” and the quartet’s cover of “A Foggy Day.”
Say Somethin’ is available as a hybrid stereo SACD disc that is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible only using a PS Audio SACD transport, or by copying the DSD tracks on the included DVD data discs. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download from this link.
Gabriel noted, “It’s been such a trying year and our goal in making Say Somethin’ was to play music that would bring people some peace of mind, while striking a good balance between simple and complex.”
The album was recorded at Animal Lane in Lyons, Colorado, one of the world’s few 32-track Sonoma recording studios. The sessions were done live with no overdubs on the Sonoma pure DSD system and mixed using a vintage Euphonix analog console, then brought back into the Sonoma system. The album was produced and engineered by Steve Vidaic.
Gabriel’s Bach Stradivarius trumpet with 3C Bach mouthpiece was recorded using Neumann M49 cardioid and Royer 122 ribbon mics to capture all nuance and warmth of his playing. The piano, bass and drums where recorded using the most suitable, highest-fidelity mics for each instrument, from a vintage RCA 44BX ribbon and DPA 4009 omnidirectional mics for the piano to a rare Tim De Paravicini-modified AKG C24 stereo microphone used as the overhead drum mic. Other equipment used in the production of the album includes Forsell, Grace and Soundelux microphone preamps and Warm Audio WA76 and Teletronix LA2A limiters.
The result is a recording of remarkable clarity, presence, spaciousness and wide dynamic range, all captured live as it happened.
Say Somethin’ is available as a limited-edition release of 1,000 hybrid SACD discs, or as a download bundle including DSD64, DSDDirect Mastered 192kHz/24-bit, 96kHz/24-bit and 44.1kHz/24-bit PCM formats.
I talked with Gabriel about his musical influences, his goals in making Say Somethin’, and more.
Frank Doris: What inspired you to start playing trumpet?
Gabriel Mervine: I got interested in music at a pretty young age. The drums first caught my ear. But by the time I joined a middle school band program, the band director said, “hey, we’ve got too many folks playing drums.” I got tossed a trumpet, and to be honest, I really wasn’t into the horn. But a couple of years prior to that, I couldn’t think of what to be for Halloween. And my mother put me in her old marching band uniform. I walked around with a bugle and learned how to form the embouchure for a trumpet. Our middle school jazz band was really good and a lot of fun and our band director was a huge mentor. So, he was a large part of the reason I ended up doing what I do for a living.
FD: In the album liner notes, you note that you have this old mouthpiece that you’ve used for a long time.
GM: When I was in my twenties, I was on the road and always hearing other trumpet players or seeing ads online for a new horn, a new mouthpiece. And you get into this never ending quest. After going seemingly full circle, ordering custom mouthpieces and custom trumpets, I reached a point where I pulled out my first horn and this mouthpiece a friend had given me when I was in college. And I was just like, man, this feels great. It got me to thinking, maybe I should just focus on me and not on constantly trying to find the perfect instrument.
FD: What was it like to record this album?
GM: it’s been such a trying year, and I was kind of just feeling uninspired creatively. A friend, Brianna Harris, got me connected with Octave Records, and they just said, “there’s a room set up here and we’d love to have you,” and all of a sudden I just started writing again. I tried to write music that struck a balance between interesting compositions, but was easy enough that we would just be able to get together and play after having been on lockdown. Once we got together, Tom, Seth and Alejandro just totally stepped up everything.
On a couple of the tunes we did a few takes just to get it right. But the second take was usually the one. This was the first album I’ve done where there are no overdubs at all. Nothing’s been edited in any way.
FD: It has that feel of the 1950s and 1960s Blue Note albums where everyone just got in the room and played.
GM: It felt so good to just be in a room playing music with other musicians. It was something I hadn’t gotten to do much of, because everything has been closed. it was a really cathartic experience.I strayed a little bit from the original goal of what kind of music to put on the record, but to be honest, it had been such a stressful year and I kept finding myself listening to classical piano and the Oscar Peterson Trio and stuff that’s really soothing. Music that brings some peace of mind was my goal in making the album, although there are some high-energy and more explorative cuts as well.
FD: Who are some of your other influences?
GM: Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Roy Hargrove, and of course, you can’t get around Miles Davis. But I’ve been playing music for a living as a freelancer since I was 20, which means I do some jazz work, pop, classical, Latin, and a lot of funk music from the seventies. It all kind of really got up in my head.Sometimes I think, “what enables me to play this instrument for a living?” It’s the fact that you get a tone that people want to hear.
FD: What advice would you have for up and coming musicians?
GM: Number one, just find ways of loving it; find the part that you enjoy and grow from there. Almost every day, I’m excited to practice trumpet because it’s always a journey of growth. Music is like this constant mirror. Maybe art and expression are constant mirrors of self-awareness that we’re always looking into.
Also, go out and be a part of the music community. I would hear bands, [get to know the people in them] and go home and check out their albums or the cover music they were playing. The next time I’d come to their gig I’d ask if I could sit in. When it came time came for them to hire a horn player, I would be fortunate enough to get the call, because they’d heard me and gotten to know me. I never did it in a hustling, business kind of way. I just wanted to learn and be part of the scene. But eventually the calls started coming in.
It was late 1968 when my friend, the late Barry Byrens, said to me, “Linc,” (he loved calling me that), “you need to get rid of that motorcycle and get a car, a convertible.” At the time I was subletting a cabin in Laurel Canyon and in fact had not thought about a car. I liked my motorcycle, but it was winter in LA and riding the bike at night was chilly.
Two days later I was at his house in West Hollywood up in the hills at 8929 St. Ives, just above Gil Turner’s liquor store at Doheny and Sunset Blvd. Barry had the newspaper open and said, “I found you a car at this car lot on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood.” He drove me down there in his Lincoln, a hardtop convertible.
We got there and it was a 1964 copper-colored Chevy Corvair convertible. Barry, me, and the salesman took it for a test drive. On a side street south of Sunset I tried to turn the car around and stalled it. It had a stick shift, so I pushed in the clutch and brake. I turned the key to restart it and the Corvair rolled backwards a foot or so and hit a fire hydrant. I don’t think I pressed the brake hard enough. Getting out, we saw a small ding put in the trunk just above the license plate. I was horrified at what I had done, but the salesman said “no sweat” and we continued the test drive, then left.
Two days later Barry found another Corvair convertible but this one was a light blue 1966. We went down and after the test drive, I was sold. It was $999. I plunked down $250 down and the payments would be $48 a month. I drove it back to Barry’s house. Later that day the salesman from the first car lot called and said, “your car is ready to be picked up.” I looked at Barry (I did not know what to say) and he took the phone from me. Barry said, “he doesn’t want the car!” “Why not?” the salesman asked. “He just doesn’t want it,” and then the salesman started getting pushy. Finally, after a back-and-forth Barry says, “he doesn’t want it because it has a dent in the trunk!” The salesman was speechless, and Barry told him to fu*k off and hung up.
My best new toy ever, it is my first car, and driving with the top down is a beautiful thing. Barry was right. One night I am driving up Doheny Drive going to Barry’s house to hang out and I see a hitchhiker. He has long hair and looks like one of us, so I pull over and pick him up. He introduces himself as “Alice Cooper.” Interesting, I think to myself; there must be a story here. “Unusual name,” I say to Alice, and he explains that it is his stage persona and the name of his band. “This is not a sexual identity thing either,” he quickly adds. He goes on to explain that he had recently formed the band and they were in rehearsal here in Hollywood.
I tell him I am from New York City and he says he is from Phoenix. I say that is not far from Los Angeles, and Alice answers that in fact it is very far from LA We both have a laugh at that one. They are getting ready for their debut. I had met more than a few musicians in Los Angeles who had told me that they were forming a band and rehearsing – and never heard of them again. But I got the feeling that this Alice Cooper guy was more realistic and solid, so I thought it might happen with for him. We got to Alice’s destination and he asked me to stop and drop him off.
I loved this Hollywood life; so friendly with everyone just hanging out. Whenever I had no plans for the evening, I would go to Ben Frank’s on Sunset to hang out. the parking lot was always packed with girls and long-haired guys, a couple of hundred young folks just milling around and getting to know each other. In New York we had something similar to that at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, where the hippies, freaks and musicians would hang out, but the scene would only be happening on Sunday afternoons.
One night I am at Ben Frank’s with Jon Lane, my (late) friend from New York City who was visiting me, and these two girls I had seen around came up to us and asked if we wanted to go party with them. Tempting, but we were hungry and were planning to go inside to Ben Frank’s and have dinner, so we passed. A couple of nights later we were back in the parking lot and this kid I kind of knew came over to us and said, “you know Audrey and her friend, right?” The guy tells me they had died. What? Yeah, he says, they overdosed on heroin; the police found them. Jonny turned to me and said, “that could have been us.” Even though we didn’t do smack, they might have convinced us to try it.
That, I was beginning to find out, was the other side of Hollywood life. As open and friendly as things were, there was another side that was dangerous, with quick turns and sudden deaths. All kinds of different people come to Southern California. New York City is the melting pot of the world, and Los Angeles is the melting pot for young Americans.
Maybe a couple of weeks or so later I see Alice Cooper hitching again. He jumps in my car and I told him I was going to a friend’s house to hang out and if he wanted, he could come too. It wouldn’t quite be a party but there would be people there listening to music and most would be smoking. Alice says, “I don’t smoke pot.” I replied, “really?” He answered, “I don’t have a problem with it but I personally do not like it.” “Oh, so what do you do? “I love beer’ Budweiser in fact.” I am not sure if they will have beer and Alice says, “let’s stop somewhere so I can pick up some Bud.”
I think we stopped at Gil Turner’s and he ran in and bought a six pack of Bud. Then we drove to my friend’s house and joined the scene. That was the thing about LA – you could just drop in on anyone you knew, and it was okay. You would show up they would invite you in and ask if you wanted to smoke.
After about a half an hour I look over and see Alice on the floor sitting with his back leaning against the wall and drinking a can of beer. He had two empties on the floor and was working on his third. No one was drinking with him; it was a pot crowd, but he looked comfortable, fit in and seemed like he was enjoying himself. The evening went on and after a couple of hours I left with a girl and we went to my cabin in Laurel Canyon.
One afternoon the rock group Love showed up to the cabin and we all hung out and partied. Love, led by the brilliant but eccentric Arthur Lee, were one of the leading bands on the LA scene during the mid to late 1960s. However, Arthur Lee wasn’t with them when they showed up. I asked about it and the band said that they had parted ways. The often-unruly Lee was quick to fire musicians.
I have been told that Roger Daltrey said that Arthur Lee was on the spectrum. In their earlier days, the members of Love lived in a decrepit Hollywood mansion once owned by Bela Lugosi, and consumed large quantities of drugs. Arthur Lee and Love evolved from the group formerly known as Grass Roots (not the Grass Roots that had many hit singles) and were known in LA for their spirited and entertaining live performances. Arthur was immensely proud of his racially-mixed band, one of the first in rock and roll. In late 1966 the three hottest bands in Los Angeles were The Byrds, The Doors and Love.
Love’s Forever Changes was released in 1967 and was and still is considered a masterpiece. The name of the album comes from a story Arthur had heard. This guy had broken up with his girlfriend. She exclaimed, “You said you would love me forever!” and the guy replied, “Well, forever changes.” The album was brilliant but did not sell as well as expected. Arthur, being very volatile, changed band personnel frequently. (In 1995 he was wrongfully convicted of a gun charge and, being his third strike, his career was interrupted by a prison sentence until 2001. After prison, Arthur formed a new band and toured and made some records. However, even though he was much more disciplined, he never again achieved his earlier promise. Sadly, he passed away from leukemia in 2006 at the age of 61.)
Some weeks later I am driving my Corvair with the top down and see Alice Cooper walking up on Sunset. I yelled to him asking if he needed a ride. With a friendly wave he said no and kept on walking east towards the Old World restaurant. The next time I saw Alice was when I was in Chicago on tour with Nektar in 1974. By this time he had become a huge star with songs like “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out.” We said a quick hello to each other in the lobby of the upscale Chicago Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive.
In 1994 I was an on-air technology correspondent and host for The Cable Doctor Show, and was covering the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. I saw that Alice Cooper was making a celebrity appearance. “Meet Alice Cooper and his Mother.” An unusual scenario, but there he was in an exhibitor’s booth, posing for Polaroid pictures with his mother. I went over and he introduced me to his mom and said, “you look different with short hair! And what is with the jacket and tie?” In response I told him I was a technology journalist on television, but that he looked exactly the same, and as you can see, that made him smile. That smile reminded me of when I first met him. He certainly has come a long way for a kid named Vince from Phoenix. I think this is pretty much the way he planned it.
Postscript: Alice Cooper is still making new music. On February 26 he released his latest album, Detroit Stories.
In Part One of this series (Issue 130), Galen Gareis of ICONOCLAST cables and Belden Inc. began an extensive exploration into a critical but not often discussed aspect of cable design: the velocity of propagation (Vp) of audio signals. In the second segment (Issue 131), he looked at practical ways to change the velocity of propagation and improve signal linearity for the benefit of better cable performance, and examined other subjects. In this final installment, Galen looks at resistance, the effects of various dielectrics, wire geometry, skin effect and other considerations, and summarizes his findings.
What About Resistance in Audio Cables?
The value of resistance, R, in both impedance and in Vp (velocity of propagation) equations matters at low frequencies. We generally think of resistance as insignificant and it isn’t. In fact, as we drop in frequency, R becomes more and more significant. The same is true in Vp across low frequencies. R is important to a cable’s performance if its value is selected well. Capacitance can be increased to improve the denominator in the low-frequency Vp equation, but we also need to consider the effects of capacitance in creating amplifier problems. If a cable’s capacitance is too high, it can create serious problems with power amplifiers, including instability. This can make amps bright or harsh.
Amplifiers are measured with resistive loads. The specifications you see aren’t really true when driving a speaker cable and speakers, where there is added reactance. The real-world amplifier’s performance is worse than the best case 8-ohm load tests. We don’t want to aggravate that issue with the speaker cable if we can keep reactance mitigated and still achieve the advantages of a cable with low time-based distortion.
We can’t always rely on ignoring what we think is “passive.” After all, R is real and since you want to manage Vp across the frequency range, the value of R is critical. And what you do to the cable to raise the value of R will also impact inductance, L, and capacitance, C.
Let’s take another example and see if XLR and RCA interconnect cables exhibit the same rise in impedance with frequency.
ICONOCLAST RCA and XLR cables are designed to have the exact same impedance and phase; thus the sound quality will track one to the other. I didn’t want to make two different sounding cables, just two different physical designs.
Wow, look at the 100 Hz impedance – 2,200-ohms – and boy oh boy, does the impedance rise as frequency drops. That’s a physical reality caused by the change in Vp. Is this a problem, though? What’s happening?
Both cables have 12.5 pF/foot capacitance and 0.15 uH/foot inductance. Those are extremely low values for interconnect cable. The RCA design’s DCR (direct current resistance) loop resistance, to a first-order approximation, is the same as the coaxial cable’s 25 AWG center wire. The coaxial’s double braid has such a low resistance that it is electrically invisible. The there-and-back loop DCR pretty much “sees” just the center wire’s DCR. The low double-copper-braid DCR also mitigates ground loop noise issues. It can’t stop them altogether, because, due to the cable’s construction, this is really its ground point reference value.
The XLR uses two 25 AWG wires or four 30 AWG wires (in the case of our Series II cable). In either design, the loop DCR matches the RCA conductor equivalent. We halve the resistance by using more wires so the there-and-back DCR is like one 25 AWG wire or four 30 AWG wires. This is why the loop DCR matches that of the RCA.
The reactive basis in RCA and XLR cable is matched by duplication of the loop area and this sets the capacitance, too. This was not done by accident. The chart below models the dielectric efficiency, and the needed parameters to do so. 0.0179” wire was the best mathematical model for performance in this single wire design with the tube area (inner tube on the RCA or one of the four dielectric chambers in the XLR).
RCA DIELECTRIC EFFICIENCY
This chart shows the asymptotic nature of the dielectric efficiency curve. The design “centers” close to the peak, and does so with the best wires’ size (smaller size and higher resistance) for minimizing Vp differential.
Note that the chamber volumes, the tube inside diameter on the RCA interconnect and each of the four chambers inside the XLR, match @ 0.00755 SQR*INCH.
Audio interconnect cables terminate into a theoretical infinity load. The industry decided that infinity is 47 kohms as a standard, and higher resistance is even better. If we look at the load value presented to the cable, the load is so large that the cable becomes nearly not there electrically. Essentially, there is no current flow, and voltage signals are transferred across the end of the cable as though it was terminated into “nothing.” The very low R and C in the Vp equation are what cause the impedance rise. Since the load is extremely high, the cable’s open-short impedance isn’t an issue as the signal essentially drops across the load and not the cable.
Our Series II RCA and XLR interconnects address the issue of Vp linearity by increasing the AWG resistance to 30 AWG wire, and raising the capacitance to 17.5 pF/foot. This flattens the Vp non-linearity. We can’t go to too high a capacitance, as voltage transfer functions like to “see” low capacitance. In order to maintain phase integrity through the audio band, the signal likes to “see” low inductance, and the cable’s quad-wire design lowers inductance to 0.11 uH/foot while improving Vp linearity (smaller higher DCR wires in parallel). Like all cable designers, we have limits to how and where we move the cable’s non-linearity region.
Application of Knowledge
What does all this mean?
We need to increase capacitance and/or increase resistance to flatten Vp through the higher-frequency audio band.
Low-impedance matching between amps and speakers is hindered by rising capacitive reactance as frequency drops.
Improving Vp linearity only by using higher capacitance increases impedance at low frequencies by changing the capacitive reactance.
Capacitance has to be mitigated to improve low-frequency impedance. We should use wire resistance rather than design capacitance in managing higher-frequency Vp linearity if possible.
There is a limit we can reach before other variables are compromised, like inductance, total loop DCR, dielectric efficiency and DCR voltage-divider properties. Each cable parameter has to be carefully solved separately and then overlaid onto the Vp differential results to see how the overall cable works. How we reach the best balance of R, L and C can result in some unique analog cable designs when we really try to reach best-in-class analog performance.
Regarding wire geometry; most people don’t really understand everything about how the use of many and/or small wires in a cable really works. However, using multiple wires has several advantages.
Smaller wire cross-sections improve conductor current efficiency and smooth out the velocity of propagation (Vp) curves. The current-through-wire cross-section is closer and closer to being the same across frequencies, as wires get smaller and smaller. If a wire could be made that was one atom wide and worked, we would have no issues at all with skin depth.
Small wires improve conductor efficiency at the higher frequencies, where the skin (wire self-inductance) effect pushes the current towards the wire surface. At low frequencies the proximity effect pushes (current in the opposite direction) or pulls (current in the same direction) current to one side of the wire. Both aspects hinder full utilization of a wire’s area.
Solving Vp differential in the different wires in a cable as frequency rises isn’t straightforward. The wire’s self-inductance makes the center of a larger and larger wire act more and more like a high-impedance path to current flow than the center of a smaller wire. And, as current flow goes up, proximity effect alters how current wants to flow in the wire’s center. Both change the effective resistance at that specific frequency. For an easy approximation we use the DC resistance value, and this is clearly not “correct.” But, the approximation errors to improve Vp linearity, the true Rs (swept resistance) value goes up as frequency goes up, and that’s what the cable needs.
The measurement of one unit of skin depth, per the definition of skin depth convention, is when the current in the subsurface of a wire is 37 percent of what it is on the wire surface at specific frequencies. However, if a wire is small enough, it may never see current drop to 37 percent. Conversely, a really large wire may see near zero current in the wire’s center at specific frequencies, with the 37 percent value happening somewhere between the wire center and the wire surface.
We can improve wire efficiency through the audio band by either making the wire smaller, or removing the center of the wire, where the copper isn’t used as efficiently anyway. In fact, at RF frequencies, where the skin effect is in full force, we replace the copper with cheaper materials like steel, CCS (Copper Covered Steel), SPCCS (Silver Plate Copper Covered Steel) or CCA (Copper Covered Aluminum). In other cables, we plate the copper with other materials to replace the copper’s properties with something better.
Some audio cable designs in fact use hollow wire, but these are larger-diameter structures with the lower DCR working against flattening the Vp curve. Small multiple wires are needed in analog cables for the best performance; ICONOCLAST uses four in the RCA interconnects, 16 in the XLR interconnects and 24 for each positive and negative side (48 total) for our speaker cable. The total number of strands used depends on the voltage divider rule referenced previously; the current in each polarity drops voltage across that “section.” We don’t want the voltage across the cable, we want it to be across the load. If the cable is of low-enough resistance, or the current in a wire is low enough, the voltage drop is mitigated.
But in all designs, more so on speaker cables, we can “trick” the voltage drop issue by dividing up the current between all the small wires. Current will split equally into each identical parallel-resistance wire, and thus have a lower individual current value. Voltage is current times resistance; E= I*R, so the voltage drop on each small wire is pretty low as we drop the current, I, even if we increase the resistance, R.
Most interconnect cables work with one small wire per conductor, as they use 25 AWG or so signal wires. They carry little to no current, so a low DCR wire isn’t, to a first approximation, necessary. However, the math says Vp linearity can improve if we try.
The use of numerous insulated wires increases capacitance, which seems initially good for flattening the Vp curve, but that changes L in the opposite direction and significantly too if you’re not careful, which is bad for phase response. The pesky third R, L or C inter-related variable is always there no matter which other two you choose to address. To manage inductance as capacitance rises with the use of more wires in a cable’s construction, we employ star-quad phase-cancellation technology to limit inductance in both our speaker and Series II interconnect cables.
The single polarity of a Series II XLR interconnect (see the diagram below) uses four bare 30 AWG wires. The electromagnetic (EM) fields cancel as the current in all four wires is in the same direction. Opposing arrows show the EM field cancellation. Both the Series I and TII XLR interconnects use an overall star-quad configuration to further reduce the EM field. The Series II has the advantage of using this technology twice, reducing inductance from 0.015uH/foot nominal of the Series one to 0.11 uH/foot in the Series II cable.
In the TPC, SPTPC and OFE speaker cable, a clever use of bonded pairs in a special weave forces a periodic star-quad arrangement like the XLR, or near so, to form inside each positive and negative side of the cable. Currents are all in the same direction, like the XLR, resulting in EM field cancellation. This reduces the inductance from 0.126 uH/foot a single bonded pair by itself, to just 0.08 uH/foot in a finished speaker cable.
INSIDE THE QUAD XLR CONDUCTOR
INSIDE THE SPEAKER CABLE POLARITY
Since we’re working in the audio frequency range we utilize the entire cross section of the wire, and we want it to be efficient at all frequencies. This is called diffusion coupling. This means the use of solid wire is best. We can’t remove the wire center as audio frequencies use this area. If we used a thin copper tube wire, we’d have far larger cable and costlier designs with no advantages.
Unlike RF, where we can whittle away the center area, we don’t want to do that at audio. We need to use one or more wires depending on the design to reach the proper DCR and Vp differential without excessive capacitance and inductance, and keep current across the entire wire as uniform as we can.
More About Speaker Cable Design
Our ICONOCLAST speaker cable utilizes many small 24 AWG wires that have a relatively low 45 pF/foot capacitance. I chose to use a higher capacitance to lower the Vp differential across the frequency range, with 24 higher-DCR 24 AWG wires per polarity (shown). Both of these attributes improve the Vp differential as we saw in the Vp analysis math.
The design of the speaker cable allows us to precisely control the capacitance. Using such a large number of small wires meets the “voltage divider” bulk DCR properties of the cable and the use of our field-cancellation technology lowers the inductance to 0.08 uH/foot. Teflon insulation is used to allow tighter wire spacing and, to hold capacitance down and to decrease loop area. The cross-weave design cancels magnetic fields to further drop inductance.
Interconnect Design Details
Earlier the aspects of how to achieve proper dielectric efficiency was shown for the RCA and XLR interconnect.
Our Generation One XLR and RCA cables use a small 25 AWG wire and have a low 12.5 pF/foot capacitance. The small center wire improves the Vp differential, while the air (hollow air core) dielectric allows tighter spacing at a given capacitance, which yields a lower inductance of 0.15 uH/foot, facilitated through a small loop area.
Our Generation Two XLR and RCA cables use a four wire 30 AWG “conductor” to increase the separate wire path DCR to lower Vp differential even more. The capacitance DOES go up however, to 17.5 pF/foot. The smaller 30 AWG wire with higher a DCR combined with increased capacitance lowers the Vp differentials even further. The changes, capacitance increase and smaller wire (higher DCR) leverage the Vp differential over “bandwidth” from lower capacitance. Listening tests show this to be a better-sounding cable.
SERIES ONE (LEFT), SERIES TWO (RIGHT)
A Series II dual-star-quad design (see right diagram) lowers inductance to 0.11uH/foot to keep phase through the audio band lower than the Generation One design. These design attributes allow a technically better analog cable to be made than our Series One (left diagram).
Our RCA and XLR interconnects have the same loop DCR in each design. How is this done? The RCAs loop DCR is essentially the center signal wire, as the braid has almost zero DCR. This is why the center wire DCR is so, so important: it’s the “R” in the Vp differential equation.
The star-quad 4×1 XLR interconnect (above left) features a full loop that uses two wires in parallel. This results in a DCR that is the same as one wire’s measured value. We cut the DCR in half in each direction, so a full loop is now the same as one wire’s.
The 4×4 XLR (above right) uses four separate wires per leg, of higher DCR value, which lowers the Vp differential. Since we use four wires in parallel, the loop DCR is lower than the 4×1 XLR even though we increased the apparent signal wire DCR with four insulated current paths. The XLR wire size is critical to performance in the audio band. The loop DCR is equivalent to using four 30 AWG conductors in parallel.
The ideal cable is always a balance of competing electrical properties. The electrical property of resistance isn’t as benign as we would like to think, and resistance has to be factored into a well-performing cable configuration. This can result in some complex but effective designs.
Inductance and capacitance are problematic, as they have a push-pull relationship. One goes up when the other goes down. We need to configure designs that are low in L and C from the start. In my studies, allowing capacitance to rise somewhat is necessary to enable the desired result of flattening the velocity propagation curve, but can’t allow capacitance to reach unacceptable values that would affect an amplifier.
All the mentioned variables are real. The net results of the effects of R, L and C in a cable are important. The ideal cable can’t really be made, though, because cables are a reactive component that interact with the other components in an audio system.
If we consider the tertiary, or unmeasurable aspects of a cable, such as wire metallurgy material contributions and polarization speeds of dielectrics and the like, they have to rest on a solid foundation of the primary and secondary effects that we can control. ICONOCLAST is made considering both mathematical calculations and real-world measurements, in order to make the best-possible cables that current-manufacturing processes can meet.
That cables sound different isn’t a mystery to me. If the variables that relate to time-based effects are improved, the sound of the cable can be improved. As we like to say, sound designs create sound performances.
In 1969, Beacon Books released a collection of essays called Rock and Roll Will Stand, edited by Greil Marcus. It’s mostly interesting or not scribblings by Marcus, America’s unmatched culture critic on the topic of Bob Dylan, and his Berkeley friends. I still have the book here somewhere, temporarily misplaced, but the gist of one of the chapters is: “Will Jay and the Americans Beat Bob Dylan in the KYA Battle of the Bands.”
It was meaningful because it posed a sincere question, the answer not obvious. In the early and mid-1960s, KYA (1260 AM) had a record review contest in which it would play five new songs five nights a week, listeners would phone in and vote their favorite, and presumably, the five winners faced-off on Saturday night to choose the KYA “Ace of the Week.”
What KYA called the nightly “Battle of the New Sounds,” Murray the K on WINS (1010 AM) in New York called his “Champ Record of the Night”; on Saturday night, teens would phone-in to select from the five “Champs” the “Boss Record of the Week.” Upsets were frequent, especially when local favorites went up against Elvis Presley, then in his post-Army popularity resurgence. The Earls, featuring singer Larry Chance, had already topped Elvis with their Boss Record of the Week, “Life is but a Dream”, in 1961. And Jay and the Americans beat Elvis one week in 1963, with a song that never even charted called “Strangers Tomorrow.”
I will tell the story of my cousin, Jay Black, who changed his name from David Blatt and joined the Americans after Jay Traynor, who sang “She Cried,” left the group, some other time. If Jay and the Americans could beat a resurgent post-Army Elvis Presley in a battle of the bands-type contest, what chance would Bob Dylan have against the ground troops of a local favorite with a ferociously loyal fan base from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island?
Figuring if he couldn’t beat them, he would join them, Bob Dylan sings Jay and the Americans’ hit “Come a Little Bit Closer” on Bob Dylan – 1970. It’s a pretty good version. You can see why Dylan might have liked the record: It has that pop-Latin twist (“in a little cafe on the other side of the border”) that Dylan would put to dramatic effect on the Desire album (“Romance in Durango,” “One More Cup of Coffee”). The women singing backup are into it; Al Kooper, playing organ as he did on “Like a Rolling Stone,” sounds seriously ready. Bob seems to be enjoying it through the opening verse, singing from memory, but bending the phrases effectively. But it’s over in 77 seconds, his attention does not hold, and they’re on to something else.
A lot of the album is like that. This is not The Basement Tapes; it’s more like the Kitchen Sink tapes, in which Dylan’s omnivorous musical interests and influences, his encyclopedic knowledge of folk and pop and rock songs, are played informally and sometimes in fragments. Dylan’s multiple releases of pop standards, including the Sinatra-themed Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016) and Triplicate (2017), are behind him. What Dylan 1970 offers are odd, random, guitar-pull versions of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream,” Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell,” and a silly but amusing medley of the Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday” and the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
This three-CD set was originally released in a limited edition on December 4, 2020, as part of a series of releases going back to 2012 whose primary purpose was to extend copyright protection on Dylan performances. This package was released commercially in the United States on February 26, 2021. There’s both a lot here, and not much here, as there often is when the function of business meets the perpetration of art.
If there is a selling point, it is that the set contains the nine tracks Dylan recorded with George Harrison on May 1, 1970. Harrison included his version of Dylan’s “If Not for You” on his debut post-Beatles three-album set, All Things Must Pass, later in 1970, but neither Dylan’s New Morning version nor Harrison’s feature the two together. And they don’t do it here, either.
Though the set is presented chronologically, from March 3 to August 13, 1970, something seems off about the way the Dylan/Harrison songs are offered. If they performed nine songs on May Day 1970, why aren’t they bunched together, in a series, one through nine, as natural as a baseball lineup? Why do the credits read: “George Harrison, guitar, vocals (Disc 1, Tracks 20 & 24 and Disc 2, Tracks 2-3, 6-7, 10-11, & 16.”)? Oddly, their rehearsal take on “Time Passes Slowly” is sandwiched between versions of “If Not for You.”
The good stuff with Harrison is, not surprisingly, two Carl Perkins songs, “Matchbox” and “Your True Love.” Harrison could play Perkins in his sleep, and sometimes it seems it may as well be. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for these nine tracks together, neither Dylan nor Harrison brought their “A” game. It’s just the way it seems to be. Their best version of a Dylan song is “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and it’s not something anyone other than an archivist would return to.
There are multiple takes of a number of songs, more than you want to count: At least five takes of “Sign on the Window,” seven takes of “If Not for You,” five, that I can count, of “Went to See the Gypsy.” Now “Gypsy” is the cornerstone of my Dylan belief system, my Dylan ethos. New Morning, one of the first reviews I wrote when I was the music editor for the alt-newspaper Boulder magazine (formerly Boulder Express) when I returned to college after an involuntary gap year, in 1970. Please don’t call it sophomoric: I was a college junior, but unlike my hippie cohort at the University of Colorado, I valued Elvis Presley.
I was moved by Presley’s 1968 comeback TV special; I was cognizant of Elvis’ return to performance at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the summer of 1969, after a long hiatus and period of isolation. Dylan was going through a similar, shorter period of avoidance of personal appearances, after his motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966, after Blonde on Blonde was released and consolidated his position in the rock pantheon. By 1970, the Beatles had broken up, Elvis was making a comeback after years of terrible records and movies, and Dylan was likely ruminating on the damage that fame had done, which is why “Went to See the Gypsy” is about Elvis Presley.
You can argue this all you want, but I consider this stare decisis, settled law.
“It’s about Dylan, dreaming of young Dylan, dreaming of Elvis,” I wrote in the November 18, 1970 issue of Boulder magazine. It’s not about Dylan actually meeting Elvis: the photos on the internet appear fake. It’s about the “now he’s here, now he’s gone” spectral presence that Presley had mastered in performing. (“Elvis has left the building.”) “He did it in Las Vegas and he can do it here” gave faith to Dylan that he too would get back on the stage again, on his own terms.
Jimmy Webb, by the way, has a 1993 song called “Elvis and Me,” based on a true story, that sounds much like what “Went to See the Gypsy” suggests. In an interview, Webb told me his song is about seeing Elvis in Las Vegas, being given a slip of paper to the after-show party in Presley’s penthouse. After some chit-chat, Webb turned his back and Presley was gone. Colonel Parker, Elvis’ manager, walked Webb to the door, and told the songwriter something like: “The next time I see you better be at the Brentwood Farmer’s Market.” In other words, you are not going to write songs for Elvis because I don’t have a stake in the publishing, you will not make plans to get together with Elvis, and if I see you, it will be a chance meeting, like at the farmer’s market. It’s been my “blow-off” line ever since.
On this record, Dylan performs two versions of the one song he wrote that Elvis Presley recorded commercially: “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” (There’s a home recording of Elvis singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the web.) With typical Presley mismanagement, “Tomorrow” was not a breakout single for Elvis when he recorded it in 1966: the timing would have been perfect. Instead, “Tomorrow is a Long Time” was buried on the soundtrack to the Presley movie Spinout. It’s a beautiful version, by the way, as close to a secular spiritual as Presley had ever sung.
Dylan also covers two Presley songs here: Two versions of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” one side of Presley’s final Sun single and later released in 1959 on A Date With Elvis; Dylan also sings one of Presley’s trademark hits, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
There are some nice folk songs here: “Universal Soldier ” by Buffy Saint-Marie, for example, though I am more familiar with the Donovan version, the same Donovan who an irascible Dylan taunts in a London hotel in the documentary Don’t Look Back. There are respectable versions of Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots,” and Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Wonder Where I’m Bound.” There are a bunch of traditional folk songs, some really useless space fillers (“Untitled Instrumental #1,” and #2), and a take of “Woogie Boogie,” the dregs of the otherwise estimable (in my revisionist opinion) Self-Portrait. “Long Black Veil” is a very sturdy alternative to the version made famous by Dylan’s former sidekicks The Band, but three takes of colorful swamp rock tune “Alligator Man” is, like much of this record, two and a half versions too many.
I wrote about 4,000 words about this for the academic journal Rock Music Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2, (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) published online 13 January 2015, about how the 2013 release Another Self-Portrait reflected Dylan’s channeling Presley on issues of fame, creativity, and privacy. https://doi.org/10.1080/19401159.2014.994306
Welcome to the new edition of Be Here Now, a column/playlist where we compile inspired new music for busy folks who would like to discover outstanding contemporary artists.
Here is a link to the Be Here Now Spotify playlist, which includes songs from all the artists mentioned in this column and many more.
Critics have been bemoaning the vitality of rock music for nearly 45 years. But it’s hard to deny that in 2021 rock has become a niche genre, albeit a large one, in the contemporary music landscape. Rock music rarely makes its way to the pop charts; it streams at a much lower rate than hip-hop and its representation in the larger cultural conversation usually results from a celebrity artist (Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus) making a reverential retro rock album. Nonetheless, rock artists still maintain a sizeable following of loyal fans who are less fleeting than pop consumers, and still thrive in a live setting where they headline festivals and fill stadiums and arenas.
Of course, this begs the question of what it even means to be a rock artist in 2021, and how much that question even matters. But that is a column for another day. Today, we’ll focus on artists working in a recognizable rock mode who are making compelling new music and are worth your time.
The Strokes, Weezer and The Killers have all had huge success for many years and their legacy and fanbase would be secure if they never produced another new song.
However, each band has released an inspired, hooky, highly listenable album in the last year and all have avoided simply repeating their past efforts. The Strokes’ jittery “The Adults are Talking” snaps and crackles and Julian Casablancas’ inspired falsetto carries the song to a heavenly finish.
The Killers have always been influenced by 1980s dance music and Springsteen anthems, and on “Caution” they perfectly meld those sounds behind one of the biggest choruses of the year. Weezer’s new album, OK Human, has plenty of references to life during the pandemic and features the kind of melodic, quirky songs Weezer is known for, often with an orchestral-pop production.
Recent years have seen the proliferation of a number of psych-rock bands who make music that is perfect to zone out to in the comfort of your home or with friends at a music festival. Turkey’s Altin Gün reimagines traditional Turkish songs as trippy, mind-bending tunes that are vaguely familiar yet exotic. The UK band Temples creates a glorious haze that allows endless sonic possibilities in their song “You’re Either On Something.”
Royal Blood is one of the few bands who manage to get played on both mainstream and alternative rock stations, making heavy music that maintains a contemporary sensibility and sound. The band DeWolff’s blues-rock riffs evoke the Black Keys but don’t sound stale and 21-year-old Brit Declan Mckenna channels Bowie, the Beatles and U2 in his ambitious conceptual and often topical songs.
Canadian-American singer Grandson’s message of social change is masked by irrepressibly catchy melodies and electronic elements. The Neverly Boys manage to evoke Father John Misty and Warren Zevon in the same song.
There are plenty of other great rock artists on this playlist. Are they going to change the world? Are they going to lead to a new rock renaissance? I have no idea, but they manage to put forward a welcome vision of rock in the 21st century and for that I am grateful.
Header image of Altin Gün courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thesupermat.
This year’s AES Fall Show 2020 was conducted virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions in New York, which prevented the convention from being held in the Javits Center, its usual venue. However, the online workshops and conferences afforded participants a unique opportunity to experience certain events in a more in-depth fashion than normally, albeit without the ability to touch any actual gear. The unquestionable main event was “7 Audio Wonders of the World,” a video tour covering some of the world’s most historic and iconic recording studios. Previously Skywalker Sound, Galaxy Studios, The Village, Blackbird Studio, and Abbey Road have been covered in Copper Issues 123 through 126. Number six on the “7 Audio Wonders” list is United Recording Studios.
It is interesting to note that while all of the top recording studios in the series have preferences for different recording consoles and speakers, when it comes to compressors, the UREI/Universal Audio 1176 transistor compressors and LA-2A tube compressors are omnipresent. These pro studio standard units are just a small bit of the recording legacy of Bill Putnam, a man of many design, engineering and production talents who has been called the “father of modern recording.”
Les Paul is often credited with inventing multitrack tape recording. However, Les Paul got the original idea from his good buddy, the late Bill Putnam, who successfully executed the first commercially successful sound-on-sound overdub recording in 1947 with Patti Page and George Barnes. The song, “Confess” contained Page’s double-tracked vocal, utilizing a disc combined with a wire recorder.
In the annals of audio recording history, Bill Putnam is a titan. He is credited with the first use of echo chambers in the US, designed and built the first modular recording console and the first isolation booth, is credited with the first use of tape echo and delay lines, and founded Universal Audio, which later became UREI, an audio company best known for its outboard processing equipment and speakers.
Putnam and his Universal Recording Studio had recorded Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Patti Page and Sarah Vaughan, and became so in-demand that Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby bankrolled his move to Los Angeles in 1957 to create United Recording Corporation.
United continued as a highly-sought recording studio over the next two decades. In 1969, 16 year old intern and budding loudspeaker designer Allen Sides began his association with United, later catching the attention of Bill Putnam by negotiating an insanely low price for a large cache of mothballed vintage gear from Putnam’s previous United Western facility for Sides’ new Santa Monica-based Ocean Way Studios. Impressed by Sides’ technical knowledge, ears and business savvy, they would become friends and partners, with Putnam selling United to Sides in the 1980s to become part of Ocean Way. Sides went on to continue upgrading and innovating United until selling it in 2013 to Hudson Pacific. Since 2015 it has been known as United Recording Studios.
Robin Goodchild, Director of United Recording, stresses that having a good staff is even more important than having great gear. United’s reputation for professionalism and taking care of clients all adhere to the Putnam philosophy and aesthetic for creating the optimum atmosphere in which to record and produce music.
Studio B Live Room
Although designated “B,” this was Bill Putnam’s first room, built to his specifications. Studio B quickly gained a reputation as an excellent tracking room, and still holds the distinction as one of the finest ever built. It is renowned for enhancing the sound of almost anything recorded there.
With a high ceiling divided into angled sections, and no parallel wall surfaces. Studio B is an old-school engineering marvel, likely built as much to Bill Putnam’s ears as his blueprints.
Studio B’s live room measures 60 feet by 50 feet. There is also a separate isolation room that is 60 feet by 54 feet, custom-built to Putnam’s specs. Originally it was part of an adjacent building, and was used for jingles. It was added to Studio B by Allen Sides in 1978.
Studio B’s live room is particularly famous for drum sounds. A unique feature of Studio B is the “drumbrella,” a variable-height ceiling baffle installed by Allen Sides in 1978 that contains a mystery sound absorption material known only to Allen Sides. It’s mounted on a winch to tailor the acoustics when recording drums, and it’s useful for recording upright bass and other instruments as well.
The first project cut at United in 1958 was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool”. Since then, United has been a premier recording location for Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Everly Brothers, Adele, Paul McCartney, Queens of the Stone Age, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, James Taylor and many others. The Studio B live room has been basically unchanged since 1958.
The enormous speaker cabinet isolation boxes currently residing in in Studio B were designed specifically for Queens of the Stone Age. The custom cabinet iso booths cut the rumble by 52 dB and managed to keep sound within the building.
Studio B’s vocal booth was built by Bill Putnam, who, among his many accomplishments, invented the standalone vocal booth. This was the first of its kind and is still in use today.
Studio B Control Room
The centerpiece of Studio B’s control room is a custom-built vintage Neve 68-channel 8068/8088 console. It was originally owned by RPM Studios in New York and later sold to The Document Room in Malibu, then acquired in 2010 by Allen Sides for Ocean Way. It has Fred Hill mods and every channel sports a Neve 31102 preamp. This desk replaced the famous but rare Dalcon console, which was sold to producer/engineer/musician Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) after decades of service and countless platinum and gold hit records.
The studio’s main speakers are Allen Sides’ custom Ocean Way monitors, and it’s equipped with Dynaudio nearfield monitors. Pro Tools HDX2 is used for recording.
Studio B’s outboard gear includes a collection of Fairchild 670, Teletronix LA-2A,UREI 1176 and Pultec EQ-1 compressors and equalizers. There is also a separate rack of vintage API 550A shelving equalizers. Users can switch between Neve 31102 or API 550A equalizers with a button. The studio’s acoustics and gear deliver vintage sounds but can also do contemporary styles, as a host of modern gear is also available.
Studio A Live Room:
Studio A is the second live room designed by Bill Putnam. It has more of an open, warm, natural sound with less “enhancement” than in Studio B – Studio A is truer to the actual sound of the instruments while Studio B has a reputation for making everything sound “better.” Studio A is considered to be especially good for strings Other than a newer parquet floor and a control room extension done in the 1970s, the room is unchanged since its original construction. Measuring 1,575. square feet, Studio A is larger than B. Its angled walls have acoustic panels that provide a combination of sound absorption and/or refraction where needed. There are no “bad” or dead spots in the room.
According to Grammy Award-winning musician/producer Gregg Field, Studio A’s live room has been basically untouched since Bill Putnam created it. Once Field started engineering there, he noticed how accurate the room was. What Field recorded to tape captured exactly how things sounded in real life, as opposed to some rooms, where a kick drum might need to be enhanced in the mix, for example.
Producer and composer Rickey Minor noted that the room doesn’t color the sound to a point where highs or lows are cut off; it just sounds organically natural and warm. Minor built a smaller room in an adjacent building ,with a similar design that captured much of the same vibe; the building itself apparently has a certain constructional magic. “The [recording] technology can change, but the way our ears hear and how it sounds in the room is something special,” Minor noted.
A 1960s Steinway D concert grand bought by Allen Sides in the late 1990s from Motown’s LA studios sits in Studio A. The large iso booth houses another Steinway, which was used by Bruce Hornsby on “The Way It Is.” It also stores Frank Sinatra’s famous podium, from where he would cut his vocals with a big band orchestra.
Studio A Control Room
Although Studio B no longer has its distinctive yellow Dalcon console, Studio A has kept its super-rare 72-channel Focusrite console, number four or only 10 ever made, and Focusrite preamps, modified for a more open sound. Originally formed by designer Rupert Neve in 1985 as a side company, Focusrite is currently best known for its computer audio interfaces. The desk is loaded with Focusrite-designed ISA 110 dynamic processors, and in 1989 was acquired from Phil Dudderidge, co-founder of Soundcraft and former live sound mixer for Led Zeppelin.
Studio A’s main speakers are Ocean Way custom monitors designed by Allen Sides. Studio A also has ATC SCM45, Yamaha NS-10, and Genelec 1032 monitor speakers for cross-referencing mixes. The outboard gear racks contain vintage LA-2A, Fairchild, Lang and UREI 1176 compressors, Pultec EQs and a Neve BCM10 console. This studio also uses Pro Tools HDX2 for recording.
Up the staircase, management offices are located on the second floor. These were the original offices of Reprise Records and Frank Sinatra, Reprise’s founder.
Long a trade secret, Robin Goodchild confessed that Allen Sides would probably kill him for revealing United’s echo chambers on the AES virtual tour, if Sides still owned the studio. The echo chambers were used on records by the Beach Boys, Sinatra, Ray Charles, The Mamas and the Papas and others, and never before revealed to the public.
Echo Chamber A is a cavernous-sounding space of cinder block construction. Bill Putnam was the first acoustic designer to bring artificial reverb to the US (it was created in the UK) at Universal Studios in Chicago, where he initially used a tiled bathroom. Later, Les Paul took Putnam’s Universal model to build the echo chambers at Capitol Studios.
A separate plate reverb room holds six EMT 140 units. (Plate reverb is created by running the signal through an actual large metal plate. It has a distinctive sound.)
Echo Chamber D, accessible through the storage room, is built in a similar manner as chamber A, but smaller. Sound is fed into the chamber from an old Altec speaker and the reverberations are captured with a PZM (pressure zone mic) on the floor.
The nearby microphone locker stores 300 mics for every conceivable application, all hand-picked by Bill Putnam and Allen Sides. Most of them are vintage tube mics, though there are also large and small condenser, dynamic and ribbon mics from Neumann, Telefunken, AKG and other manufacturers.
Allen Sides installed Studio D in 2003 when United was still Ocean Way. It was designed as a standalone mixing room with a vocal booth (large enough to hold a piano and a bass amp) and a separate iso booth for overdubs. Studio D has been used by Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and notable producer Jack Joseph Puig reportedly had a long-term block booking for Studio D at one time. It is not an original Putnam room.
Studio D’s console is a Neve 88R. There are 16 (!) racks of outboard gear filled with a mix of vintage and modern equipment.
United Archiving is a separate division on the second floor of the building. Bill Smith is the chief archiving engineer. The archives hold reels of analog and digital tape in almost every conceivable format. All of the material is transferred to hi-res audio files and/or broadcast quality .WAV files.
The facility allows clients to have access to older assets (including original multitrack tapes) that are archived into high-resolution digital audio for future use. The archiving division also serves to preserve original material in order to avoid degradation once digitized. Thus, the new files can be re-done for 5.1 or Dolby Atmos remixes and so on. The facility is in almost constant use.
The formats are transferred using a host of appropriate playback equipment, from a 24-track Studer multitrack analog recorder to an original 1980 digital-2 track Mitsubishi X-80 PCM recorder, an Alesis ADAT recorder, a Sony PCM 3348 48-track digital recorder and many other machines.
Unlike The Village, which experienced a temporary downturn in business in the 1990s because of younger artists avoiding the facility due to its close association with classic rock icons like Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty, United Recording has always been in demand from musicians of all genres. Its client list includes an impressive mix of seasoned and new artists. Alabama Shakes, Avicii, Mitchell Yoshida, Nat King Cole, most of the Reprise Records Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin), Beck, Radiohead, 21 Pilots, Lizzo, Ray Charles, Lionel Ritchie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Phil Collins are just a small sample from the last 60 years. A recent photo collection curated by pro audio journalist Mr. Bonzai contains thousands of shots documenting sessions at United and now adorns the halls. The photos present a fascinating look at United’s history and its continuation of the legacy of Bill Putnam and Allen Sides.
All images courtesy of United Recording Studios/photography by Zane Roessell.
Many audiophiles are tinkerers. We’re constantly striving to squeeze the last iota of performance out of our audio systems, or we just like to putz with stuff, or we’re obsessive-compulsive.
Tinkering often involves experimentation. And (cue evil horror movie laugh), the experiments don’t always go right. I’ve had my share of failures, and I’ll bet it’s true for any audio manufacturer.
I’ve been fascinated with electronics since I was a kid – and never let a lack of knowledge get in my way. When I was 13 my father bought me a Kimberly electric guitar and a Bryan amp, a cheap solid-state model with a tiny speaker. It wasn’t very loud. I reasoned that if I built a bigger speaker cabinet, it would sound louder.
I had little money. I could only dream of buying even the raw speakers in the Lafayette catalog. So, I went around to the neighbors’ houses in our suburban Smithtown, New York neighborhood and asked if they had any old radios they didn’t want. I managed to collect a bunch. Then I needed an enclosure. My mother had an old laundry hamper with ugly brown vinyl covering. Since I had no woodworking skills, I decided it would do.
I set to work, pulling all the speakers out of the radios, sawing holes in the face of the hamper and wiring it up. I thought, if one speaker would play at X volume, then surely six speakers would play at XXXXXX the volume!
I plugged it in, hesitantly struck a chord, and…heard a pathetic, tinny, low-volume sound. What did I do wrong? All the connections were OK…no matter what I did all I got was this barely-audible blat, dreams of blasting away at Pete Townshend volume dissolved. Bummer!
Years later I found out that hooking up more speakers of course doesn’t necessarily give you more volume – especially when the speakers are connected in series and present a high resistive load to the amplifier. I don’t remember if I’d wired the speakers in series or parallel, which would have been equally bad, dropping the total impedance of my hamper rig to something more akin to a short circuit than anything you’d want an amplifier to drive. Also, I knew nothing about needing to keep the speakers in phase, so half of them were probably phase-cancelling each other.
Lesson learned: don’t just start futzing around with what you think will work.
Sometime later I tried the opposite – hooking up a Kustom 100 guitar amp head to a 6 x 9 car speaker and turning it to 10 to see what would happen. The voice coil went up in flames, that’s what happened!
Lesson learned: don’t put 50 watts of power into a speaker rated for a few watts.
A few years later I read an article about how double Advents were a hot thing among audiophiles. You’d stack two Large Advent loudspeakers and get sound that was way better than using a single pair. Well, I didn’t own Advents, so I just took two pairs of speakers I had around (I don’t remember which models), stacked them atop one another, connected them to my receiver’s Speaker A and Speaker B outputs, and…heard an incoherent sonic mess. No imaging or soundstaging. Where was the stacked-speaker magic?
Eventually I found out that you needed to stack the double Advents with their tweeters next to each other – in other words, with the top speakers upside down. This gave improved imaging (and other sonic benefits) and created a pseudo-D’Appolito driver configuration. I had just plopped two random speakers atop one another.
I haven’t tried stacking speakers since then.
Lesson learned: leave speaker design to the speaker designers. (Although if you do your homework and have talent, maybe you’ll come up with the next Rogers LS3/5A or Wilson Alexx.)
Through most of my twenties I had little discretionary income. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, my dreams were limited only by the size of my bank account. In an effort to save money, my great (and sadly now deceased) friend (and former TAS and Stereophile writer Bob Reina) suggested buying Monster Cable Interlink Reference raw cable and connectors and soldering them up myself. He had a source, and the savings were significant.
So, I bought the stuff…and soon realized that stripping the wire was nearly impossible. It took an hour just to get one end prepared. When I tried to solder up the connector, the solder just wouldn’t stay on. I tried and tried and wasted an entire afternoon. Finally, I called my friends at The Audio Den, and the guy who answered the phone laughed and responded with something like, “who told you that you could do this stuff yourself? It requires special solder, special fixtures, high-temperature equipment – you’ll never be able to do it!” Well, I wasn’t laughing after wasting all that money. I did get a good deal on some used Interlink Reference from the salesman though. Perhaps he took pity on me.
I was able to get some doubled-up 12-gauge wire though, to make homemade speaker cable that served me well for years and actually sounded pretty good.
Lessons learned: one, sometimes, good soldering skills ain’t going to get you anywhere. Two, sometimes it’s more expensive to try to “save” money.
Every tube aficionado loves tube rolling, right? For those unaware and un-obsessed, tube rolling is the practice of trying different tubes other than the stock ones supplied with an audio component, in the quest to get better sound. And I had accumulated quite a stash from going to garage sales, an avocation I started when I was 22. You could get lots of tubes back then. Being curious, I tried them in guitar amps and audio gear – and wondered why I got all kinds of hissing and sputtering noises or terrible sound or no sound at all, or why my system got a “pinging” sound whenever I touched anything. Duh, noisy and bad tubes and microphonics! I didn’t have a tube tester at the time but that didn’t stop me! To compound the mayhem, a few years later I bought an Audible Illusions Modulus 3 preamp – which is notorious for “eating” tubes that aren’t rugged enough. I’ve gone through at least a dozen 6DJ8/ECC88/6922 tubes. You’d’ think I’d learned my lesson by now but when you put a tube like a Made In Holland Amperex “Bugle Boy” in it, the sound is so heavenly you could weep. And I haven’t blown up the preamp yet.
Lesson learned: if you’re going to try tube rolling, do it with good tubes from a reliable source!
If you ever blow a fuse in an audio component or guitar or bass amp, don’t ever try to get through the gig by putting aluminum foil in the fuse holder. Just don’t.
Lesson learned: see above. The evidence, an old Fender Twin Reverb, is no longer in my possession.
Toilet paper can be a useful audio mod! It can be used to tame a tweeter’s brightness. Before you think I’ve gone totally off the deep end, this was actually a thing in the pro audio world with Yamaha NS-10 studio monitors. I once was testing a pair of Snell Type C loudspeakers that had a tweeter in the back, with a switch to tailor its response. I didn’t like the sound in either position so I thought, let’s try covering it with toilet paper! But my OCD came to the fore, and you know where this is going – I had to try different thicknesses, even going so far as to peel the paper apart to get a thinner layer. I was never happy with the sound. Failed experiment – although I could have been more thorough, but I was too embarrassed to go to the supermarket checkout counter with a cart full of different brands.
Lesson learned: maybe Charmin would have been worth a try.
Every audiophile has experienced The Upgrade That Wasn’t. The first was when I was in my early twenties, and was ready to move up from my Marantz 2216b receiver that “only” had 16 watts per channel. I saw an ad for The Wiz (Noo Yawkers will remember the chain) with a great deal on a Kenwood KR-710 with almost twice the power! I bought it, expecting a huge sonic improvement, and…as the doc in The Twilight Zone “Eye of the Beholder” episode says, “No change! No change at all!” I was crushed. But I had already sold the 2216b.
A few years later, history repeated itself, this time in upgrading my Linn LP12/Syrinx/Grado turntable setup to a Goldmund Studio (with the same Syrinx arm and cartridge). I thought the Goldmund would annihilate the Linn – and it didn’t. I tried lying to myself, especially after spending – you don’t want to know. Was it worth it? For decades I’ve been lying to myself…
Lessons learned: one, sometimes what you think will be an upgrade, won’t be. Two: If you can, try before you buy.
When I worked at The Absolute Sound I curtailed my experimenting predilections, since our mandate was to test the equipment under real-world conditions, not do stuff like run the tape outputs of an Audio-Research SP-11 preamp directly into the amplifier in order to bypass some circuitry and get a purer sound. According to my predecessor at TAS, it could work – but you were playing Russian Roulette with the gain-matching to the amp and the efficiency of the speakers, risking dropping the needle onto the record and getting ungodly loud speaker-shredding volume. Would you want to try it with an Infinity IRS V speaker system?
Although, I did have to sometimes try crazy things just to get through a listening session or review. We once got in a Mark Levinson No.25 phono stage for review. The system had poorly-shielded interconnects and a low-gain moving coil cartridge in it – but that’s what editor Harry Pearson wanted! – and I spent hours trying to place the No.25 in a spot where it wouldn’t hum. The only thing that worked was placing the phono stage sticking out into the room, away from the equipment rack – and the only thing handy to put it on was a small metal wastebasket. When Harry saw that, he freaked. “You can’t put it on a garbage can!” And reminded me that the Madrigal Audio Laboratories guys (the Mark Levinson distributors at the time) were coming to visit. “OK,” I said; “I’ll put it in the position where it hums the least and let them figure it out.” Which is exactly what I did. They couldn’t solve it either and when they left, it went right back on the wastebasket.
Lesson learned: sometimes, no matter what you do, it just ain’t going to work.
Oh, how much time I’ve spent on tweaks that didn’t work! To be fair, some did, like putting vibration-isolation cones under components or positioning speakers symmetrically to within a 32nd of an inch. But, especially during my No-Budget Audiophile Era, I tried a lot of things that didn’t work. Don’t have the money for isolation cones or pucks or turntable bases? Try what’s around the house! Nuts and bolts as speaker spikes or isolation feet; rubber placemats, wood or cardboard as isolation platforms (painted black to look “finished,” and yes, I tried cardboard), blankets as sound absorbers (these can actually work pretty well), aluminum foil shielding, weights taped to the tonearm, the aforementioned tube rolling and more.
My audiophile friends and I would try anything, to the point where Bob Reina nailed us one time. He brought over a mysterious-looking circular white three-legged object and said, “put it on top of the record over the spindle and it’ll improve the sound.” Like eager puppies, we tried it. “I think I hear an improvement!” “The sound opened up more!” “What is this thing?”
It was a pizza saver, the spacer in a pizza box that keeps the top of the box from touching the pizza.
Lesson learned: naahh, I’ll just leave that there.
Rock and roll documentaries have become fairly predictable. Over the past year alone I think I must have watched about two dozen. They tend to follow a formula, and if the focus of the film is pretty well-known, it’s likely that you won’t leave the viewing having learned much more than you already knew going in. That’s not the case with Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man. This is the story of the legendary keyboardist, often described as the “Fifth Rolling Stone.” What sets it apart is the manner in which it showcases Leavell’s talent and body of work, and reveals his love of nature, his commitment to family, and his remarkable sense of humanity. There’s a balance to the film that’s rare and ironically metaphoric to how Chuck Leavell leads his life.
The film is packed with star power, including interviews with Billy Bob Thornton, Mick Jagger, President Jimmy Carter, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Dickey Betts, Paul Shaffer, Chris Robinson, Charlie Daniels, Miranda Lambert, Charlie Watts, Bruce Hornsby, Julian Lennon, Mike Mills, John Bell, Pat Monahan, Ronnie Wood, Warren Haynes, John Mayer, David Gilmour and more. Together they tell the tale of a truly remarkable man. As our mutual friend and official Allman Brothers historian John Lynskey said of Chuck:
“Chuck Leavell is every journalist’s dream. Thoughtful, articulate and patient, Chuck turns an interview into a conversation. He lets his talent speak for itself, so there is no rock star ego to deal with. The master of preparation in everything he does, talking to Chuck is an absolute pleasure.”
Lynskey couldn’t be more right. In our time together Chuck and I covered a good amount of ground. The conversation came easy and the stories told are ones that will remind you of how the brotherhood of rock and roll sometimes transcends even the music. The mutual admiration found on both sides of the Chuck Leavell story is well-footed against years of dedication to musical partnerships that know few equals. The tales told in the documentary (and often in this interview) explain how that magic founds its way to the songs we all hold so dear. The tales are as priceless as the songs they often inspired. I was moved by Chuck Leavell’s story. I know you will be too.
Ray Chelstowski: This film won a People’s Choice Award at the Sedona Film Festival and I can see why. It really is an enjoyable ride for anyone who loves music. How did you approach establishing a balance between presenting your career, family, and your work with forestry in the documentary?
Chuck Leavell: I have to give all credit for that to our film maker Allen Farst. We worked together for over three and a half years on the project and we had all of this incredible raw footage. There are the interviews with the folks I’ve worked with [in the music business] and then with people in the forestry world. Then of course there are the shots of Rose Lane and myself here in Charlane and also in Savannah, Paris and all that. I thought, “my goodness! How in the world is someone going to stitch this whole thing and make it a cohesive story?!” Allen said, “Chuck, this is what I do,” and he went into his basement for like six weeks and lo and behold he came out with something that I am just really pleased [with] and proud of.
RC: Allen Farst has made a broad range of films, everything from sports to entertainment. Did that influence your decision to move forward with him on this project?
CL: It wasn’t really so much about his body of work as it was about his commitment to the project. When we interviewed some other people they were like, “this sounds like an interesting project.” But Allen said, “Chuck, I really want to do this! I know I’m the guy to do this for you and I promise you that I will put my heart and my soul into this project. You just have to place your trust in me. I have a vision for it and I know that nobody can do it better than me.” So what do you say to that (laughs)? He convinced me that he really wanted to do it and would be willing to go the extra mile to do whatever it took to get it done right.
RC: You’ve said that it was difficult to edit the film down to 1:43. What did you leave out and what parts were the hardest to drop?
CL: Well there was some more concert footage of a show I did with a big band in Savannah. There were interviews with a lot other musicians I have worked with, like my good friend Randall Bramblett, and Davis Causey. There was also footage that was cut out of interviews. So Allen had the talent to realize what the hot spots and the highlights were and kept it to a reasonable time frame. I did talk to Allen about the possibility of a “Director’s Cut” where we would include a lot more footage.
One other thing I’ll mention is that while [the band] Sea Level is mentioned in the film, [they] didn’t get as much time as I wish it had allowed for. We were searching for a show we did at the Montreux Jazz Festival back in 1977 and we were starting to track down whether we could license it. Time started running out and we just couldn’t get there. So those were some of the things I wish we could have included.
RC: Like me, there’s a big age gap between you and your oldest sibling. I found that that age difference had a profound impact on the kind of music I grew to love. Was it the same for you?
CL: That’s a great point. I wish we could have gotten an interview with my sister, especially because she at one point worked at a record store. This was when I was just beginning to put together my first band. We would sometimes pool our money together because she could get a discount on buying LPs there. We would buy records together and share them. You’re right; my sister was definitely an influence and her ability to get these records that we both loved listening to was inspirational.
My brother is a whole different story. My mother had rubella when she was pregnant and he was born deaf. He now is a preacher and he has a deaf congregation in Memphis. Billy was very inspirational in a different way because of having overcome his deafness. He learned to lip read early on so we could communicate and he was a bit of a home filmmaker as well, and would make these amazing science fiction shorts where his character named “Ray Rocket” would fly to the Moon or Mars. He was quite clever with the limited resources that he had. The other talent that he had was cartoon art. He was excellent and I would imagine that he has the entire Bible, especially the stories of the Bible, done in cartoon art. He had a publication called Life of the Deaf. As you pointed out, family can be very influential in different ways and certainly my brother and sister were, and my mother and father were as well.
RC: In the film you talk about the secret of a long marriage. Having your wife with you on the road must be a gift and may have even saved your life!
CL: Absolutely, it’s been a godsend. When we do go out with the Stones, Rose Lane actually works back stage so she’s part of the Stones family as I am. We miss all of our friends, our characters that work with both [the] musicians and crew. The fact that she does travel with me makes life so much better for both of us and we’ve shared so many great times together with friends that we’ve made throughout the world. She’s been a great inspiration to me as well has been her family, especially on the environmental side. It’s really the love and dedication and passion that her family for generations have had for the land that inspired me to get involved as well.
RC: When you are playing with the Stones do the contributions made by the keyboardists who preceded you in the band have an influence on how you approach each song?
CL: Oh it absolutely influences me. I was a Nicky Hopkins fan before I ever dreamed that I would play with the Rolling Stones. I got to meet Nicky in 1982 when I did my first tour with the Stones. Ronnie Wood came to me when we were at Wembley Stadium and he said, “Nicky’s here man. He wants to meet you.” I was like, “oh man, are you kidding me? I can’t meet that guy!” Ronnie goes, “no, no, no, he’s a really nice guy. Loosen up. It’s gonna be all right!” And sure enough, [Nicky] was just as nice and humble as he could be. He said, “You’ve got a day off tomorrow right? Would you like to get together and have lunch?” So, we did, and we became friends and traded Stones stories. Over the years we wrote letters back and forth to each other. Of course this is back in the 1980s so it was before the internet. He was living in LA and I remember him writing me a letter after that big earthquake. He said, “I’m outta here! I’m not gonna live in a place where the ground moves!” So, he moved to Nashville and spent the rest of his days there as you know doing sessions.
He was incredibly inspirational. When I play a song like “Angie” that has his beautiful signatures, I know that I could never replicate them exactly, nor would I try, but I do try to do my version. The same applies to Billy Preston. When I was young, my sister took me to a Ray Charles concert and Billy was playing in the band. That became my first knowledge of him. Ray gave him a special part in the show where he sang a song, danced out front, and was playing the Hammond B3 [organ]. That’s when I began to pay attention to his career. Not only with the Stones but with others. He was a huge inspiration as well.
Stew (Ian Stewart) was the guy who really got me into the Rolling Stones. He promoted the idea of me being in the band. He tried to get me on the 1981 tour and that didn’t quite work out. But he did get me on in 1982 and Stew was instrumental in helping me understand the art of boogie woogie. I used to play that style with a certain left hand movement and he said, “hey man, you’re leaving out a lot of what you should be doing with your left hand.” He kinda corrected me and showed me patterns that really helped me understand that style.
The answer is “yes” to all of the above. And Ian McLagan by the way; in 1981 the band came to Atlanta and did an unannounced show at the Fox Theater. Stew called me up and said that “the guys are going to be in your back yard. Do you want to come up and jam a little bit at the show?” I said “Hell yes!” So I went up for that and I had some degree of trepidation as you can imagine meeting Mac, because he had the seat. I had auditioned and had admired his work and I didn’t know if there would be any tension. So I get called to go out on the stage and I’m playing a piano and Mac is playing organ, 90 degrees from each other. Bless his heart, he looked over his shoulder and said, “I see you’ve done this before, haven’t you?” And that really broke the ice. We became friends and communicated through the rest of his days.
RC: You have such a steady calming presence. I would image in working with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger that that has helped the band and the creative process.
CL: Well that’s a wonderful comment and I appreciate it very much. But you’re right, I try very hard at times to be a diplomat for the band. I think that one of the things that I believe makes a difference is being a good listener. I want to really understand what the concern is of all four parties. And then if I have a solid understanding of what they are thinking, then I can help mediate a little bit, left and right or between all four corners.
RC: It seems that throughout your career your addition to a band is about what you can do to elevate the music as opposed to just adding a “signature sound.”
CL: Yeah I would say so. I may have a style myself as I have been influenced by others as we talked about. When I’m going into a studio to record a track I always ask, what is the song asking me to do? What are the producer and the artist asking me to do? Again I think it goes back to being a good listener, to fully understand what the goal of the artist is and how can I help this track be a little bit better. That’s always what I try to do live. In rehearsals with the Stones with this incredible body of work, how can I contribute things that will make it a little bit better?
RC: As you note in the documentary, John Mayer has a songwriting style that is different than what you had been accustomed to but that you admire. Do you take something away from working with each musician?
CL: Oh my Lord yes! I say sometimes that any musician is lucky to have a degree of success with just one band. But the joy of my career is having all of this diversity. You make a great point about John Mayer, just watching the way he works. He just pushes and pushes until something comes out. That takes a lot of wherewithal, man; it takes a lot of determination and creativity. And of course chops. I mean, my heaven, John’s got chops in his hands, he’s got chops in his voice box, and then he’s got chops as a songwriter. You get to watch these people do what they do and I wish I could do it as well as they do. I’ve never been a great songwriter in that sense. I’ve written a few instrumentals that I feel good about. It is a learning experience and I feel that I am always a student of the people who I am working with.
RC: The only time where you appeared to be worried about work was when Sea Level had disbanded and the first Rolling Stones audition didn’t result in a job offer. It’s pretty incredible and such a testament to your talents to have remained in such steady, high demand for almost fifty years.
CL: I have been very fortunate and you are correct that was the one time where I did have concerns about my career. As the film depicts, that was also the same time that we moved to the country and began to investigate what we could do with our land. That helped fill that gap a little bit. But I had big concerns about whether I would be able to hook up with another artist, or [if] was I going to have to start another band. It weighed very heavily on my mind. Just as the film shows, I came home expressing all of this frustration and anxiety to my wife and at the end of it all she says: “yeah, well that’s interesting, but the Rolling Stones called you today.” I mean man, you talk about a turnaround? When that came out of her mouth I said, “look, Rose Lane, I don’t need a joke right now.” She said, “it’s not a joke Chuck. Here’s the number, go call them.”
So, I did, and got a woman on the phone. I had no idea who she was and said something to the effect of “listen, my name is Chuck Leavell and I understand that there are some people that might be looking for me and I’m happy to talk to them.” (laughs) You know I was trying to be careful of my wording! And sure enough it was Ian Stewart who called back within a matter of hours. I had a little trio that was playing at a place called The Cottage in Macon. I was somewhat surviving on doing that and so I said, “well Stew, this is amazing! I’ve got a gig this weekend. Can I come Sunday or Monday?” And he said, “we’d really like to have you there tomorrow!” So I had to go get the Tattoo You record and try to get a good feeling for the songs they might play off of that. But then I kinda had a talk with myself where I said, “Chuck, you’ve played Rolling Stones songs since you were fifteen in The Misfits. So relax, be yourself, go to the audition and have fun. Whatever happens, happens.”
Part Two will appear in Issue 134.
Photography by © Allen Farst.
In Part One (Issue 132), Alón began his quest to scale the heights of Kala Patthar near Mount Everest in Nepal. The story continues here.
After our terrifying landing at Lukla, the world’s most dangerous airport, our expedition guide, Wang Chuk, a thick, strong-looking man with an air of relaxed confidence, met us as we disembarked. His demeanor was that of a highly-trained special ops soldier – cool, calm and completely inured to the harrowed looks on the faces of his clients as we exited the plane and wobbled to the terminal.
As one of the most experienced guides in the Himalayas, Wang Chuk’s big presence welcomed us to his domain as we gathered our gear. So stern was his countenance that I was prepared to cringe while he berated us for showing weakness, as would a drill sergeant in basic training…but no, nothing. All projecting aside, he proved to be a very affable guy. His accented English was fluent and he never raised his voice above conversation level – he didn’t have to, since it had the quality of permeating and electrifying the air around us as he spoke. It was impossible to ignore him when he gave instruction – exactly the kind of guide I would want on a treacherous expedition.
After a satisfying meal of Momos, a standard regional dish of stuffed dumplings, we set off on the first leg of our long trek. Our destination was a few hours uphill to the only sizable town on our path, Namché Bazaar – the gateway to Everest. Here we would spend five days allowing our bodies to acclimatize to the thin air of life at high elevation. This stage was critical to our safety. Indeed, stories abound of reckless young foreigners eager to hasten their way up who blew through this town which sits at a reasonable 11,000 feet, but alas, never made it home. Altitude sickness is not something you want to dismiss or challenge.
With Everest calling us from above and five days to prepare for the big climb, we walked around town aimlessly, watching in fascination as a new house was being built; making the locals laugh with horribly mispronounced phrases; shopping for trinkets we didn’t need; and taking our last opportunity to write home via e-mail while sipping on teas and coffees infused with gamey yak butter (oh, yum). Definitely an acquired taste…
Western culture has been affecting Asia for centuries, so it’s probably just a matter of time before they open a Starbucks in Namché. I could just imagine locals bellying up to the counter to place their order: “Uh, hey Tenzin, I’ll have my usual Grande Yak Butter Double Macchiato Half-Caff, no foam, with a dusting of cocoa and just a swish of tail hair.”
After five long days of acclimatizing in the antithetical luxury of warm indoor lodging, hot showers and good restaurants, we were more than ready to leave the lush life in Namché and get higher.
Our supply packs were already heading up the mountain by porters who got a head start by leaving in the wee hours of early morning. They each carried 80 pounds or more, bent forward with the main pack straps anchored and stretched across their foreheads. Many wore thin sandals for the multi-hour climb to our next camp.
As we plodded ever higher, trees became scarce, replaced by the rocks and ice that were now clearly in charge. In the cold, it’s easy to forget to drink enough water, since it makes one even colder, but I kept encouraging myself that drinking cold water in an icy environment is better than being dead.
Relaxing at our camp on the mountain, a likable 17-year-old Sherpa porter named Dorje was glowing with the euphoria of his first paid ascent. In the Sherpa community, where jobs are scarce, it is an honor to be chosen to work for foreign climbing expeditions. He spoke no English and could only smile and gesture – but to elaborate on those limitations and make his joy very obvious, he bounded up and down the slopes surrounding our first camp, making sure we saw his display. I give him credit; he was fast and agile, and drank in our whoop-whooping celebration of making his family proud.
Even young athletic boys can misstep or lose their balance…but suddenly, something wasn’t right. Dorje was holding his head with both hands like I remember doing during the migraines of my youth. A couple of us rushed to his side as he fell to the frozen ground. Dehydration coupled with physical exertion is a climber’s recipe for cerebral and pulmonary edema. Water collecting in the brain and lungs is extremely dangerous at altitude, and yes, you can drown in your own body when your lungs fill up – and then there’s the brain, which can shut down from the pressure of water roiling inside the skull. This boy was born at high altitude, but, nevertheless, we witnessed the horror of his expanding head right in front of us. One of Dorje’s eyes bulged grotesquely from its usual resting place.
No time to waste. We alerted Wang Chuk and he sprang into action, immediately giving Dorje a dose of Dimox for altitude sickness and calling upon a couple of his strong Sherpa guides to join him as he hoisted the young man onto his back and practically ran down the trail, heading to the nearest rescue station back below the tree line. It was about an hour away even without the added weight. I wanted to help, but Wang Chuk forbade it, as I would have in his place. I followed anyway, but it was hard to keep up with the Sherpas, even with a 140 pound boy on their backs.
After about 45 minutes of them taking turns carrying their human payload, we approached the rescue station. One of the guides raced ahead to alert the medical staff as to what was coming their way.
Within seconds, Dorje was put in a long yellow vinyl enclosure that looked like a torpedo tube with a small clear window near one end that revealed his face – which by then was a frightening sight with his eye determined to pop out of its socket to escape the mounting pressure. He looked miserable and crestfallen that he let down his family. The portable tube was pumped to an oxygen pressure of 5 atmospheres, which, if I understood correctly, was the equivalent of going down 5,000 feet in altitude in minutes, effectively staunching the cause of the sickness until he could be transported to lower, safer environments.
It broke my heart that this young man might never have another chance like this again and would likely have to live with the dishonor. It was especially poignant that Dorje was showing off for us, and we encouraged his celebration, which made the whole ordeal personal. I really wanted do something, anything to help, but Wang Chuk and the medical staff had the situation under control. All I could do was gesture my condolences through the vinyl window to the one eye that I think was seeing me. Within a few minutes in the tube, Dorje’s face relaxed somewhat as the edema in his head and lungs began to subside.
The doctor told us we saved his life, but It remained to be seen if his brain was damaged. I didn’t expect to find out, ever. All I could do was wish him well and trust he would find his way.
Header image: person walking a trail on Kala Patthar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Niklassletteland.
By Nektar’s second American tour in 1975-76, Roye Albrighton (lead guitar player and singer) had stopped traveling with the band. He was instead traveling with his lover, a married woman who had an open relationship with her husband, Berndt. He made every gig and date and was never late. That was a huge relief, but how he traveled was unknown to me. In retrospect I find it interesting that we never ran into them or in any way crossed paths with them on that tour. Not at an airport, rental car site and only once at a hotel. The other band members included Allan “Taff” Freeman (keyboards), Derek “Mo” Moore (bass), Ron Howden (drums) and Mick Brockett (lighting and effects).
Berndt was supposedly a commercial media director in Germany. He was purportedly willing to go along with his wife’s affair and her interest in Roye’s career. To that extent he paid their expenses and furnished some financial support to Roye going forward.
It was also known to us, but not to the public, that at the end of the tour Roye would be leaving Nektar after some eight years and returning to Germany to start his solo career under the direction of Berndt. Still, Roye had a place in our hearts, and for me, I hoped his leaving was just talk. It was not, and at the end of the tour Roye and his lover returned to Germany.
Nektar moved on and hired guitarist/vocalist David Nelson as Roye’s replacement. With the help of newly-hired music attorneys, Nektar sighed a new record contract with Polydor Records and the third American tour was booked by the late Jimmy Oppenheimer of Jeff Franklin’s American Talent International (ATI). The opening act was Lake, a German group who at the time had a somewhat successful debut album on the charts.
Having received a nice signing bonus from Polydor, Nektar upgraded their equipment and effects, which always included Mick Brockett’s dazzling light show. The third tour coincided with the release of Nektar’s then-new 1975 album Recycled.
Recycled did not do as well as expected and ticket sales on the tour suffered. There was friction with our opener, Lake, who seemed to be resentful of Nektar. When we were in Los Angeles, I was asked by ATI to take a meeting with their management representative, who was very cordial for a minute or so – and then suggested that Lake headline the rest of the tour and have Nektar as their opener. The money paid to each band would stay the same, he noted. I asked him what Nektar get out of that, and he said, “nothing. it is just that Lake’s album is doing better.” He thought reversing the billing was a good move (yeah, right, for Lake).
I was surprised and thought to myself that he had a hell of a nerve. Meeting over, he was insulted, like he was doing us a favor and I was not appreciating his effort. Jeez I thought, screw ’em. I never mentioned it to the band. I did not see the need to insult or upset them with this ridiculous request.
Derek “Mo” Moore, the de facto leader of Nektar, said to me after the tour that the choice of the album title Recycled might have been one of the reasons that the album did not sell well. He thought that people thought it might have been a compilation album, a greatest hits LP, with no new material.
Nektar went back into a recording studio in New Jersey to record their next album, and the owner of the studio convinced Mo that he would be a better manager than me. Mo approached me and we talked it out. Things were not in a good place for the band, and maybe new blood and money would be the change they needed. It was a friendly separation. To this day we are best friends. In fact Mo is one of my oldest friends.
I moved forward and toured with other bands. Then in 1978, Mo quit Nektar, and I assume Roye and those invovled came to an arrangement regarding performing rights for Nektar.
Soon after Roye gets in touch with me. He is living in New Jersey and wants to play, and could I book some gigs? He had Berndt call me, and we worked out a deal where he would guarantee any out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred, and I could commission the dates. We would work together so I agreed, even though I did not have a contract, but I naively assumed that if I booked the dates and was successful I would be in a strong position.
With no new product the only thing the band has going for it was name recognition. That has some value; I needed to build on it. It was not easy, but I kept at it. Finally, I book a date, but it is a week and a half away. People need to eat so I pay the band and crew out of my pocket.
The next Saturday “Roye Albrighton’s Nektar” plays the gig at The Chance, a rock club in Poughkeepsie, New York. The door (box office) is good and the club is happy. Roye’s Nektar plays well, so both the audience and band are happy. Next week I book dates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Then for the week after I nail down a Saturday in New York, plus gigs in DC and West Orange, NJ. OK, I am thinking; maybe, just maybe, there is a chance.
Then it turns out that Roye must leave the house where he is staying. He has nowhere to go. I ask Jessica, my then-wife, if he could stay with us, temporarily. “Where,” she asks. We have a small convertible couch in Josh’s bedroom. Josh is our infant son, only six months old. Jessica is hesitant and I ask her to bear with me and give it a try. I tell Roye he can stay in Josh’s room, but if he disturbs Josh or causes any issues, we will have to find another solution. Roye agrees and moves in.
Jessica and I brace for the worst, but it turns out that Roye is an excellent guest. He had his own key and came and went at will and not once did he even cause a ripple in the household. My our son never had an issue with his roommate. Roye was so quiet he never woke Josh or either of us and even if he did come home at odd times of the day or night, I never even heard the key turning in the door. The room and adjoining bathroom were always clean. Jessica and I were pleasantly surprised. After three or four weeks Roye found a new place and moved out.
The bookings were going well and Roye Albrighton’s Nektar was playing a few gigs a week and had created enough income to cover expenses. Ticket sales were increasing and the positive word of mouth was spreading. There was even enough left over that I was able to partially reimburse myself for some of my earlier out-of-pocket expenses. The signs were pointing in the right direction and everyone was optimistic.
Then I heard from Berndt. He was pleased and thought out loud, “maybe the band should come back to Germany and go into the studio and do an album.” And possibly Roye might also work with some promising upcoming German bands.
Unbeknownst to me, he had already told Roye that this was the plan. He was flying over to have a meeting with me and the band. It was a fait accompli, but I think Berndt was concerned that I might try to block the move. I pointed out to him that the band had gained some real momentum, and it might be wise to keep our foot on the gas. No, he had other plans for Roye, but he would fly over, have a band meeting and reimburse me for the monies owed to me. When he landed he rented a car and we drove to this picnic meeting where everyone including me knew what was going to happen. Apparently, he just wanted my blessing (probably for Roye’s sake).
We had the meeting, all four minutes of it. When it was time to head back to the city I again asked for my money and he made a face and then hesitantly pulled out his check book and wrote the check. You would have thought it was going to kill him.
After that day I was done. I think – and this is only my opinion – but it seems to me that Berndt had it in for Roye. He held the purse strings, he called the shots and I am assuming he took on this endeavor to subtly sabotage Roye’s career. The fact is that he had no standing or experience in the music business; his cash infusion was the only reason for his existence in our world. The best I can say about him was that he took over Roye’s career management halfheartedly.
I have been told some years ago that he got in trouble with the German tax authorities and took off running. Last thing I heard was that no one has heard hide nor hair from him, but that was a while ago so he might or might not still be on the lam.
Roye took me out for a drink a few years later. He was sorry for what had happened and was no longer involved with Berndt. I accepted his apology; we had been though a lot together, life was difficult, and I am not one to hold a grudge.
We saw each other on occasion and then he moved back to England. Roye got married on May 31, 1986. Then I lost touch with Roye for a time. Lyn (Roye’s wife) recently told me that Roye worked for 13 years in the offshore oil and gas industry as a computer technician. He traveled all over the world. Egypt, Syria, Vietnam, Norway, Kazakhstan, many countries. He was usually gone for a few weeks at a time then home for a similar length of time. The work suited him fine, and he enjoyed the travel.
In those years he did not play much, only at home. When asked if he missed performing, he said he had become disillusioned with the music business.
He became ill in 1998 and needed a liver transplant. At that time, he was in his 10th month in Iran managing a small oil company. He went back to the UK and had the transplant operation in March 1999. He was under for two weeks! After he woke up, he announced he was going back to music. And for the next 16 or so years Roye was back on stage playing his music.
I had not spoken to him for a long time but we got back in touch via Facebook. We stayed in contact up to the time of his death in the summer of 2016 at the age of 67.
Roye was flawed like many of us, but was a talented musician, truly a diamond in the rough. Given another set of circumstances who knows what he would have accomplished musically. Even so, he lived one hell of a life.
Header image of Roye Albrighton courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/BlueBreezeWiki.
In the previous article in this series (Issue 132), we discussed the rationale for listening to open reel tapes in this era of digital music. If you love certain artists and their recordings from the early stereo era until the advent of digital, which was between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, and you have access to high-quality copies of the master tapes of these recordings, the tapes will get you closest to the original intention of the artists and recording engineers. In this article, I will discuss the issues related to playback equipment.
Open reel tape machines were at one time quite popular in the domestic setting. Early machines used tube electronics, but most machines found on the used market today are transistorized. By the mid-1970s, the market came to be dominated by Japanese brands such as Technics, Sony, Sansui, Akai, Denon and so on. Most domestic tape decks have a 4-track playback head as well as a 2-track playback head or 2-track playback/record head. Separate heads for playback and record are recommended, as the heads should be optimized for their individual functions. Some machines also have an auto-reverse function; when the playback of one side of a 4-track tape ends, the deck automatically reverses direction so that the other side is played without needing to manually flip the reels. Some open reel decks only have two speeds, usually 3.75 inches per second (ips) and 7.5 ips, whereas the more expensive machines can play at 15 ips as well.
Cheaper open reel decks usually only have one equalization standard, NAB, whereas the more expensive consumer and “prosumer” machines often have a choice of NAB and IEC1/CCIR equalizations. (Tape equalization is similar in principle to the RIAA equalization used in phono playback. EQ is used for both the recorded media and the playback device in order to minimize noise.) Most of the old commercial 4-track tapes sold in North America run at 7.5ips and have NAB equalization. If you buy a machine to play back these old commercial tapes only, a deck with a 4-track playback head that runs at 3.75 ips and 7.5 ips with NAB equalization will be sufficient. However, be aware that most of the new commercial pre-recorded tapes, such as those from Analogue Productions and The Tape Project, are 2-track, run at 15 ips and employ IEC1/CCIR equalization. They will not play on the older machines. All the consumer-grade open reel decks have 1/4 inch heads, and while most can accommodate 10.5-inch reels, some smaller decks can only accommodate 7-inch reels.
Studio machines are different beasts altogether. Their head blocks can usually be changed quickly to accommodate different track widths. Most work at 7.5ips, 15ips and 30ips, and have switchable equalizations. They can accommodate at least 10.5-inch reels and sometimes up to 12-inch reels. They are usually much larger, much heavier and much more expensive than consumer and prosumer machines.
The quality of a reel to reel tape machine depends on its speed stability, the construction of the heads and the quality of the electronics. The mechanics of tape machines are far more complex than that of turntables, and require careful calibration. The better units usually employ separate direct drive motors for the reels and capstan, with servo control to ensure speed stability. Some machines have separate capstans before and after the head block, or in the case of Technics, a loop mechanism where two pinch rollers work off the same capstan with the tape running in a loop between the rollers. The way a machine physically handles the tapes is also important for their longevity.
A few consumer machines have a separate connection to the tape heads, so that external record and playback electronics can be used. Most professional machines also have built-in playback and record electronics in the form of slot-in boards. As we will discuss later, most open reel decks can be easily modified to work with external electronics.
Which type of machine is the best choice for today’s audiophiles? If you want to play back 4-track tapes, you will need to have a consumer deck, or you will need to install an aftermarket 1/4-inch 4-track playback head in your studio machine. The availability of spare parts and maintenance also needs to be considered. Spare parts are no longer available for most of the consumer open reel decks, but there are specialists who continue to provide maintenance service and even modify certain models.
The most popular consumer machines today seem to be the Technics RS 1500 Series and the Otari MX5050. Otari continued to manufacture the MX5050 until at least 2012. The Technics and Otari models can play both 2- and 4-track tapes, have switchable equalization, and offer very respectable sound quality in stock condition. J-Corder is a specialist in the restoration, maintenance and modification of the RS-1500. United Home Audio sells several levels of modifications for Tascam tape recorders, including improved heads and electronics. They have received highly favorable reviews and are perennial crowd favorites in audio shows. Chris Mara, a recording engineer in Nashville, has a company called Mara Machines that restores MCI professional tape machines for studio clients as well as audiophiles. The prices are very reasonable, and a good entry point for audiophiles who want to explore tape playback.
If you have the space, a studio machine is a better option in my opinion. My first open reel tape deck was an Otari MX5050, but I soon switched to a Nagra. Since many studios continue to use them, spare parts and maintenance are widely available. Studio machines are generally built to a much higher standard than consumer models, to withstand the heavy workload of a busy studio. Most of the music available on LPs was most likely transferred using one of these machines, so you can’t go much wrong there.
Studer and Ampex are the two most common brands in Europe and the US, respectively. The first important Studer deck was the C37, which employs tube electronics. The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper ‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band on a J37, the 4-track, 1-inch version of the C37, which was then mixed to stereo on another C37. You can still make a recording on this setup at Abbey Road Studios today. A friend bought a C37 and painstakingly restored it to its original specifications in the space of one year. In stock form, this is the best machine I have heard so far. Due to the age of the deck, its fame and its rarity, a C37 in good condition today will fetch a very high price.
The successor to the C37 was the Studer A80, which is a transistor unit. Alan Parsons produced Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon on a new A80 at Abbey Road Studios not long after it was installed. This was the most popular Studer studio machine and many were sold to recording and mastering studios as well as radio stations. They are therefore relatively easy to find, but beware of those with high mileage that will need a complete overhaul. They are very reliable, and like the Energizer Bunny, will just keep going and going. The A80 is also one of the best-sounding machines available in its stock, unmodified form.
After the Studer A80 series came the A800 Series, with the A820 being the last machine in the series. Most A820s on the market are multi-track machines, sometimes with up to 24 tracks. They are mechanically superb but expensive. Those looking for a more compact unit can consider the A807 and the A810.
Studer also sold consumer machines under the brand Revox. The Revox A77 and the more updated B77 were quite popular, but personally I would go for the A807. If I had the space and the means, I would love to have a C37 and an A820. Unfortunately, Studer is no longer producing recorders and only makes digital mixers nowadays. However, it is not difficult to find specialists who can maintain these machines.
AEG was the inventor of the Magnetophon, the first modern tape recorder. They marketed their machines under the brand Telefunken, better known to pro audio professionals and to audiophiles for their incomparable studio microphones, amplifiers and vacuum tubes. The Telefunken M10 vies with the Studer C37 and the Ampex MR70 for the title of the most desirable vacuum-tube tape recorder. The most common Telefunken models on the market are the M20 and M21, the difference being the M20 has four speed selections whereas the M21 only has two. These recorders were sold in the tens of thousands to radio stations throughout Germany, and can be bought in good working order for less than $3,000 on the used market. They are mechanically very robust workhorses, but they do not sound as good as the Studer A80. Beware – some machines are configured to play with the oxide of the tape reel on the outside, a configuration peculiar to German radio stations.
Ampex was the first company to manufacture tape recorders in North America, and these were widely sold in both the professional and consumer markets. The ATR-102 (2-track version of the ATR-100 Series) was the most successful mastering deck the company ever produced. It is also the first to feature a servo-controlled, direct-drive capstan system, which greatly diminishes wow and flutter. It is generally regarded as one of the best mastering machines, with a price to match. Both Analog Productions and The Tape Project employ the ATR-102 to copy their tapes. ATR Services still provides maintenance for this model.
Nagra was the first company to produce a portable tape recorder, which transformed location recording for the film industry and news media. The Nagra IV-S was the most popular portable recorder in its era, and was pretty much standard issue for reporters and film crews. Therefore, they can still be easily found on the used market. Although the Nagra is just about indestructible, many have seen a fair bit of abuse. The machine comes in two versions, one with a time code feature and the other with a non-pilot configuration. The time code version has a narrower track width and an additional time code head. It is therefore preferable to have the version with stereo heads, to maximize the track width. As the supply is plentiful on the used market, the cost is not high.
However, the machine can only accommodate 7-inch reels, requiring a separate adapter to play 10.5 inch reels. This QGB adapter will cost more than three times the price of the recorder itself, if you can find one to buy. There is an aftermarket adapter currently available at a much lower cost, but I cannot vouch for its functionality. The machine runs at 3.75, 7.5 and 15 ips. It has NAB, IEC1/CCIR and Nagramaster equalizations. Nagramaster is a proprietary equalization that gives a better signal to noise ratio at the expense of 3 dB lower high-frequency headroom. It also has stereo microphone amplifiers with phantom power, and an integrated monitor speaker. It can run on batteries. The machine was conceived mainly as a recorder and it makes stunning recordings. However, the playback is not meant to be of audiophile quality, but it is possible to wire the playback head out of the circuit to make use of external electronics. The Nagra IV-S has the same playback and record heads as its larger and much more expensive sibling, the Nagra TA.
The Nagra T-Audio was initially designed to be a scientific instrument. The transport has extremely low wow and flutter, and handles tapes very gently. These units were extremely expensive when new, and most of them were sold to film studios. They represent the epitome of Swiss precision engineering; if Studer were the equivalent of Rolex, then Nagra would be Patek Philippe. I measured the frequency response of a stock Nagra T-Audio with an MRL (Magnetic Reference Laboratory) calibration tape, and it was absolutely flat from 32 Hz to 20 kHz. However, the playback circuit is based on op amps and has all sorts of compensation networks for high-frequency compensation, head gap compensation and other functions. The sound is extremely dynamic, but has more than a trace of an electronic quality, making it sound rather upfront and aggressive. It sounds less three-dimensional through the stock electronics than when played through my tube tape head preamplifier, which could indicate some phase non-linearities. However, it is very easy to wire the playback head directly to an external tape head preamplifier to obtain better sound (see photos).
Nagra is still very much in business, but seems to have lost its mojo in the pro audio world. The company has placed its bet on high-end audio. Nagra is in fact a large company specializing in the security and communications sectors, with audio only contributing a small percentage of its revenue. The company has spun off its audio business into a separate entity called Audio Technology Switzerland, and they still maintain a stock of spare parts for their legacy products. In recent years, Nagra has been demonstrating their high-end electronics at audio shows with a Nagra TA as the music source. They have also started selling refurbished recorders with warranties. Given enough demand, they might even resume building new machines!
Stellavox was another high-end tape machine manufacturer in Switzerland, and had a portfolio quite similar to Nagra’s. The SP8 and SP9 were their answers to the Nagra IV-S, but sold in far smaller numbers. Their TD9 master recorder was legendary but was only produced in small numbers, due to its high price. Interestingly, the production of this recorder has recently resumed by Sepea Audio, using new parts from the original suppliers as well as from existing stock. As far as I know, this is the only classic tape recorder currently still in production. The price of 36,000 Euros is very reasonable for a top-end master recorder, and competitive with ultra-high-end vinyl-based equipment.
Lyrec of Denmark was another niche manufacturer of high-end studio recorders. The two models of interest to audiophiles are the FRED, which is a portable machine designed for tape playback and editing, and FRIDA, a compact studio mastering recorder. Both machines are of very high quality, and are relatively compact. They enjoy cult status among professional studio engineers. The company still provides servicing for these machines, but they no longer manufacture analog recorders.
In Part Three, I’ll discuss open reel tape decks that are currently being manufactured.
Header image: Adrian Wu’s Nagra T-Audio machine.