Roger Modjeski Obituary

You know what my father said
Well I’m not going to tell you
Some words that I try to live by
It’s none of your goddamn business

-John Hiatt / Shredding the Document

I wrestled with myself about writing this, I really did. I have known and worked and fought with Roger Modjeski since the 1990s. He has been an immense influence on my life as I know I was on his. He was brilliant. He was generous. He was greedy. He was visionary. He was shortsighted.

He was my friend & I’m truly sorry he left this world so soon.

This is not an attempt to tell Roger’s life story. It’s more of  stream of consciousness obituary. If any dates  or the timeline of events are incorrect, who gives a shit? And, I’m not telling anything that I wouldn’t have said in Roger’s presence. We had an occasionally difficult relationship but an honest one and we were always civil toward one another during our battles.

Roger grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the son of the dean of the dental school at UVA, Peter Modjeski. I mention Roger’s father because it was he who got Roger interested in electronics, tubes and circuit design when Roger was little more than five years old. When Audio Advisor wanted a photo of Roger to include in their catalog, Roger wanted to use the photo of him at six, sitting in his pajamas with the first tube amplifier he ever designed, a single-ended triode, of course. He was a surprisingly outdoorsy kid, loving to fish the local rivers and streams. Roger spoke many times of grilling fresh fish and making hush puppies out in the woods near his family’s home.

Roger experienced a very strong push & pull toward the last of the 1970s that ended with him in California, first working at IBM and later at his then dream job with Harold Beveridge. Bev used Roger’s abilities wisely (for the most part) and Roger developed the RM-1/2 preamp and power supply while he was at the company but soon thereafter Roger felt the push and pull, again that only going into business for oneself can satisfy.

RAM Labs came first, followed by RAM Tube works and finally Music Reference. I heard my first Music Reference product at Brooks Berdans’ store in Monrovia way back when. A few years later I was publishing The Audio Observatory. Being an admirer of his designs, I always sent an issue to Roger. At some point, he wrote me a letter, inviting me to meet with him in Santa Barbara.

RAM 1

Really, though, the real Roger came through in the bit of verse he included on a separate page.

RAM 2

I say the real Roger, but I really meant that this was Roger as he could be, and as I know he strove to be. But, it was hard for him to sustain this kind of sensitivity and reflectiveness, especially when it came to his business.

RAM Labs was born at the perfect time. Had it started a decade later few would have valued his properly tested tubes and engineering rigor. But, in the early 80s folks were just beginning to yearn for it and the attraction to his tubes, once established, continues to this day. Music Reference was founded on Roger’s personal investment of $4,000. That cash built the first run of RM-4 pre-pres and the rest is history.

One of the reasons I sold The Audio Observatory was to go to work for Roger. I’m not sorry I did it though nothing turned out like I expected (does it ever?). Roger detested the processes of building gear as much as he loved designing and prototyping it. The RM-10 was born of his desire to build both an eco-friendly amp and one that got way more power out of a humble pair of EL84 output tubes. Given the right speakers, it sounded (and sounds) spectacular. Its small size kept it from being as respected as it should have been but to those who know there’s no amp anything like it designed or built anywhere.

The RM-200 was my idea. I waxed lyrical to Roger about my Audio Research D-70 MkII and what I regarded (and still regard) as the magic of two 6550s in a hard-driven circuit. Roger listened to me, and he listened to the D-70 MkII. Still, the ARC offended his sensibilities. The driver and input stage were overly complex and the 6550s were simply driven too hard. One day, Roger asked me if a reverse hybrid, one with a balanced solid-state input driving (you guessed it…a pair of 6550s) would have any appeal. I asked him how much it would cost and he said we could sell it for $1850. That number fit nicely with the RM-9 MkII so I loved the idea. Well, by the time the RM-200 hit the market it cost nearly $3000.

Why? Because Roger hated the process so much that he kept raising the price, even before the amp was available and even though out best dealers and distributors had placed cash deposits based on the old price. The truth was that building the RM-200 was fairly easy (especially compared to the RM-9 MkII). Still, it nearly killed Roger and I do not exaggerate. His doctor advised him no fewer than twice to abandon the project and sell the company if he wanted to preserve his health. The RM-200 was everything it was designed to be though a lot of people just didn’t get it. It broke too many rules, spoiled too many assumptions about hybrids, and feeding tubes with transistors. Though we knew selling it would be an uphill battle, the reception (save for Stereophile’s Class A Recommendation) was hurtful to both of us. The price increase simply killed that amp and prevented it from being the unusual classic it could have easily been.

By the time I moved on from RAM Labs we were basically out of the equipment game. There was nothing being built. We had RM-9 SEs on hand and a smattering of RM-4 but that was it. The RM-5, the RM-10 and the RM-200 were all in suspended animation at that point. I had grown tired of making promises to dealers and especially our distributor in Singapore who had made a sizable investment in our gear and tubes. As Roger admitted to me one day, “It’s hard not having anything in your cart to sell.”

I visited Roger a few times while he was still in Santa Barbara and we always had fun hanging out and chatting, never about business. By then, he was building his custom SE stuff. That had been a kind of dream for him for a long time; build one, sell one. You see for Roger, the joy was in The Study as he called it. That was his process of going from inspiration to finished circuit. That was the part he loved and it had nothing whatever to do with business. Most high end companies are the opposite. The designs fly together, be they good or not so good, and then move on to production. It’s time to sell the damn thing is the collective battle cry of the high end.

Roger was caught between those two desires. He believed his real value was as a designer and, of course, it was. He used to say, “Why can’t I just design it and someone else build it?” That made sense, but in the end it was always his company and the idea of prototyping something let alone moving it on toward manufacture without him was unsound. Still, the glory of his designs do and will endure. The RM-10, the RM-9, the RM-5 and the Counterpoint SA-4 are among the most enduring high end products ever; and for good reason.

RAM 3

RAM 4

This Christmas card from way back when will always be how I remember Roger Modjeski. Working alongside him was many things, including fun. I will always wish that we could have accomplished more, with Music Reference especially. But, in the end, we did what we could and we did it our way. I know all of the owners of Music Reference gear will treasure their gear all the more now that he has slipped away from us. For myself, I wish only for one more sunny day in Santa Barbara with him, sitting outside one of our favorite restaurants, talking about the high end and music and life.

 

Roger Modjeski Obituary

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

Originally published in an old blog of mine way back in 2013

I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult if not impossible to get my hands on otherwise.

Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was a very unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and, even needed, to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.

Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly all the way from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.

Of course, just hanging out with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we often did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi Reference and Dynavector XL that was back in Valencia were loaners from the distributor anyway.

Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”

Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but then I realized he was building it for me.

“You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.”

Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”

For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA.

Brooks always took his work very seriously.

When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?”

“Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.”

“Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”

Grudgingly, he got out his price sheets (on paper, of course) and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so mail me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”

I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out that I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would simply do what he could to to help.

The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me as if it were a breeze. I miss not playing very many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great.

Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I really don’t want to…

It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say that he was a friend of mine.

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

The Legacy of my friend, Brooks Berdan: My REGA P3 / Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO

I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult to get my hands on otherwise.

Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was an unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and even needed to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.

Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.

Of course, hanging with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we usually did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi and Dynavector XL that was back in Santa Clarita were loaners from the distributor anyway.

Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”

Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but I realized he was building it for me. “You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.” Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”

For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA. He always took his work very seriously.

When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?” “Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.” “Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”

Grudgingly, Brooks got out his price sheets and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so send me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”

I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me, he was a friend. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would do what he could to to help.

The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me like a breeze. I miss not playing many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great. Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I don’t want to…

It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say he was a friend of mine.

The Legacy of my friend, Brooks Berdan: My REGA P3 / Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO