February 12: Tower 45

The valley to valley idea is predicated on being able find a way to hike from one valley to the other. One emphasis is on the word hike but the second is find. I knew that fire roads are everywhere in the foothills of Los Angeles County. I’m glad they’re there but hiking on them is more like walking than it is like hiking. And, since they all go somewhere there’s very little duty for navigation. The only question is how far do you want to do in any one direction?

If the challenge is only the hike it loses some appeal. It’s not that far and it’s not that hard. Surely others have done what I propose but I don’t really want to know how they did it since I assume there are a number of different routes, starting points and ending points. But worse, it would shatter the possibility of discovery…maybe the discovery of an error and maybe the discovery of something that works better than what others have done. In this case, crowd sourcing is the last thing I want to benefit from.

So, I am trying to minimize the use and influence of the experiences of others and of maps. A too map and a fire road map would tell the whole story. But as is so often the case it’s not the story that matters it’s the way that it’s told or in the case of the valley to valley hike how it a route is found and how it’s hiked.

The last time I was hiking west from the Victory Trailhead I saw a single tower in the distance. When I got home, I succumbed to temptation and found it on Google Maps. It’s called Tower 45 and it’s said to be a 3.5 hour hike from Woodland Hills and a 3.5 hour hike from the Conejo Valley. That’s useful, but it’s also more than I wanted to know. What I didn’t have to read was the obvious conclusion that Tower 45 was connected on both east and west by a big, wide fire road.

So, I took a little trip today to an area that I suspected was not far west of the tower, east of Westlake Blvd. I took a trail through a local park and caught up with an eastbound fire road. After about a mile and a half it looked like this:

By my reckoning I should have been close enough to see Tower 45, but it was nowhere in sight. The trail toward the right center rose steeply and on another day I might continue on this trail to see if Tower 45 lays beyond. The foothills were plenty tall enough to obscure a tower, even a tall one so I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Surprise. That’s part of what I’m trying to preserve. I am hoping to be surprised by. something in the planning of the hike but it’s beginning to seem more and more like all trails will lead to the common. The game’s not done yet. There’s more to discover and more to my study but I can sense surprise slipping away bit by bit.

Tonight’s writing soundtrack is Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session from way back in 1988. And, since I’m listening to this superb record on vinyl it merits a snap of the LP rather than another cover photo.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

February 12: Tower 45

February 11: Am I stuck or?

The year is streaking by and most of my time today has been spent on the LP project and working on my valley-to-valley hiking project. So, I’m wondering if I’m stuck or if things are going exactly as they should? The wind stayed around far longer than usual for this time of year, and then it retreated. Today, by the time I hit the trail, it had to be close to 90 degrees. I shied away from my hill climb. It just didn’t seem like a great idea to throttle my legs on such a hot day. The green of the seasonal grasses are already starting to pale from their original bright green. The oaks that survived the last round of fires are already leafing out. As I’m sure I’ve said before, I am hoping for a least another round or two of rain. Absent that, this will be one of the shortest winters in memory.

On the subject of Cottonwood, my formatter has acknowledged receipt of my manuscript and front matter. It’s all happening now, ready or not. The cover art is still baking in the oven. I’m not worried. I know it will be wonderful but there’s a certain amount of angst about the logistical issues on the horizon. My recollection is that the ebook version of the my first novel was actually more tricky than the print version. Back then, Amazon required a file in their own MOBI format whereas now they use EPUB. Hopefully, this change makes no difference to the formatter. For the print version, all you need is a PDF of the book itself and a precisely-dimensioned JPEG for the cover art. Amazon really has this self-publishing deal down.

We got another chance to share a drink at 1894 this evening. It’s a delightful little spot with a good wine list and a small but well-chosen tap list. Today I had another French Pilsner from Bram’s in nearby Monrovia. I think they must share space with Wingwalker Brewing since they have the same street address. This pils may be the best thing to come out of France since, well, maybe forever. It is crisp and clean yet possessed of a deep, interesting pallet of flavors. Damned if it wouldn’t go perfectly with chips & salsa. What more can you say about a good beer?

Anyway, that’s it for tonight. I hope more happens tomorrow at least between my ears. Tonight’s writing soundtrack is an interesting duet by Andrew Bird and Fiona Apple called Left Handed Kisses from his 2016 record, Are You Serious. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the song that introduced me to Bird, Giant of Illinois. The man is nothing if not varied and versatile in his style and presentation. I’m looking forward to hearing more from him.

Thanks for reading.

Are You Serious
February 11: Am I stuck or?

February 7: Musicians who are missing in action

The internet is an endlessly fascinating place. It has made finding new wonderful musicians easy and immensely satisfying. I could not begin to name all of the musicians who have crossed my path, quite by accident, over the last decade or so.

The odd thing is that occasionally one of them (or two in this case) will go missing, leaving only the music that led me to them in the first place.

The first is Brendan Campbell. He may have had another record at some point, but the only one I know of is Burgers & Murders. I’m listening to Pleiades right now. This guy is so gone that he doesn’t even have a licensing deal with iTunes anymore. I found that out when I realized that none of his songs were on my iPhone. Had they not been downloaded to my MacMini years back that music would have been gone, maybe forever.

Brendan Campbell

The other musician is even more obscure. All John Danley left behind are a handful of videos. He was (is?) a wonderful finger-style player. From what I’ve been able to find he’s totally done with the whole music deal. The last reference I saw about him mentioned that he’d turned to a career in psychotherapy.

John Danley

A handful of years ago, he had a working website. What must have happened for him to let both his website’s eponymous domain and the site itself slip below the electrons of the internet? I just don’t get it. It’s just too easy and inexpensive to keep a website online to let one slip away. I actually mentioned Danley’s name to Will Ackerman a couple years back, along with a link to one of his videos. I had a kind of fantasy that Will might have recognized Danley’s talent and would want to set about using his industry connections to get him discovered, but Danley’s anonymity remains frustratingly intact.

How many more wonderful musicians am I doomed to find and lose? To put a tiny spin of optimism I could say I’m fortunate to have found Danley & Campbell at all, and that’s true. It’s always hard to keep from wanting more, I suppose.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Had I been willing to let this post wait until tomorrow I would have done a better job. For some reason tonight the WordPress desktop app will let me do everything but write a post.

The optimist would say how lucky I am to be able write what I have on my phone.

February 7: Musicians who are missing in action

February 1: Analog and, damn, but January went by fast

pCloud actually finished the digital upload. It didn’t finish on time, but it did finish. So, today I moved the first of the LP AAC files onto pCloud. Files seem to move quickly when, even though the files are large, the number of files are relatively small. I had one early LP that had a skip producing a skip that pissed me off. Since I was familiar with the record I was surprised to find the visibly-evident smudge. Once I found it and cleaned it the LP was fine.

This miniature misadventure got me thinking about analog, especially about the LP. As I have said before, I have no nostalgia or happy feelings toward the LP. They sound better but they are a pain in the ass. There’s no dispute about either end of that sentence, at least to me.

The thought did move me to consider all of the turntables I’ve owned in my 60 years. I need to back up first to my brother’s Acoustic Research AR XA which I am guessing he bought in 1969 or thereabouts. I do not, sadly, recall the cartridge. That was the first analog rig that allowed one to hear into the recording in a way I’ve not generally been able to recreate with any digital equivalents. I was only 8 or 9 then I think it was another handful of years before I bought my first table at Fedco, a BSR. It didn’t sound very good but I liked it anyway. By then, the XA and even the XB were long gone or wildly reduced in quality by whatever forces affected such changes in the early 1970s.

Still, I used that BSR happily until I found a seemingly ancient Empire 298 Troubadour with a poorly-matched Infinity Black Widow arm. The arm was far too low in mass to work properly with the 298 and it took forever to find the proper belt but it sounded pretty good. Again, I do not recall the cartridge but I do remember that the rig was befouled by relentless acoustic feedback and a stubborn ground-loop hum that only my brother, John, was able to chase down.

I then went Japanese, first with an entry-level Technics SL-20 and Empire cartridge that I bought, new, in like 1975. It sounded excellent but suffered from feedback and rather surprising wow and flutter especially since it supposedly used a synchronous motor, so let’s be charitable and blame the speed issues to the drive belt which always felt a bit stretchy.

What next? Well, I’ll have to think for a bit. Holy shit, I remember, even though I would rather not.

It was the Harman/Kardon ST-7 Rabco. Oh my god, the promise. Oh my god, the horror. Straight-line tracking. How do you do better than that? Tell me, how?

I had three of these in the late 1970s, though I do not recall the faults of the first two that resulted in the third. I can only say that the dealer was as unhappy as I was. To say they were casually, tending towards carelessly, assembled would be kind. Yes, the channel balance was superb. And, yes, the speed precision, considering one motor drove two belts (the one that drove the platter and the one that drove the arm) was quite good. But, feedback was horrendous even with the most conscientious placement (another room, more than twenty feet away).

As another reviewer wrote about a pair of Jason Bloom’s Apogee speakers, the ST-7 was a glimpse of heaven and a look at hell, all at once. But, that glimpse of heaven was hard to forget.

A couple years later I bought my first REGA product, a Planar 2. Nirvana. It didn’t sound as good as any of the previous tables I had used yet somehow it sounded more right than any of them. Plus, it worked. It was free of hum, had impeccable speed control and keep feedback at bay. Later, I bought a Planar 3 that I used as a reference while many far more expensive tables made their way into and out of my listening room. The most impressive were the tables from Franc Kuzma, first the Stabi and later the Stabi Reference. Yes, it helped that I was working for the distributor at the time. It also helped that the distributor also brought in the amazing cartridges from Dynavector in Japan.

Ah, Kuzma and Dynavector. Would anyone ever imagine that a Slovenian turntable and a Japanese cartridge would work so well together?

Well, they did.

Hey, wait just a second. I’m way beyond my daily word allotment. I’m going to have to finish this tomorrow. For all of you who care about my analog evolution, please drop by tomorrow. For those of you who don’t care, well, I will leave that decision up to you.

Thanks for reading.

February 1: Analog and, damn, but January went by fast

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

How to evaluate high end audio gear: Choosing reference recordings

From time to time I get emails asking which recordings I have used when I write reviews and why. I usually keep this type of information to myself for my own odd reasons.

But in this case, I will relent: 

In the early 70s, before the term audiophile had come into common use, a recording was made that unknowingly adhered to every audiophile convention that are now the subject of so much of the hype that infects today’s audiophile labels. The record is Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise RS 6376). First of all, this LP is among the last of the big label LPs that were lovingly pressed on only the finest vinyl. My pressing is pushing 30 years old, is free of pops and ticks, and tracks just as it did lo those many years ago. Here we have the most challenging registers of the female voice, trading focus with cello, clarinet, piano and more. Can you hear the shadings that make the clarinet stand clear from the voice? Do you hear the floor boards resonate beneath the cello? The truth is in the details, and this LP has a wealth of them. The recording is beyond reproach, and the compositions are sublime and timeless. The bad news? This baby will be very hard to find in decent condition.

Sorry for follow up one needle in a haystack LP with another, but this one is another LP that will become an essential part of your collection, if you can get a hold of a copy. It is the 1984 release by guitarist George Cromarty, Wind in the Heather (Dancing Cat Records {a division of Windham Hill} DC3001). This is an amazing collection of short solo guitar pieces. Each of the 13 original compositions are melodic masterpieces in their own right, and the recording is simply lucious…easily the finest recording of acoustic guitar that I have ever heard. The mastering was done by Bernie Grundman and you will never hear a cleaner pressing. Like the Mitchell LP, this LP is invaluable for listening to a system’s critical ability, or sometime unfortunate inability, to render both a natural sound space and retrieve the essence of the acoustical truth of the music. Does the guitar emanate from clear space, or does it seem bound to the speakers? Do the overtones of each note connect to the fundamental pitch of the note, or does one come from here and the other from a over there? Acoustic instruments demand coherence, and this is always a challenge for a multi-driver loudspeaker.

But what, you may ask, about the non-acoustical truth? Find yourself (this will be much easier) a copy of the 1975 classic from Steely Dan, Katy Lied (ABC Records ABCD-846). Again, here we have audiophile sensibilities before audiophile pretensions. The back cover of the album notes not only the use of a Neumann VMS 70 lathe, but also advises strict adherence to the RIAA curve. Who says the ‘70s were an empty decade? This is great stuff, rock with wit and intelligence played by some of the hardcore studio guys of the era (including Rick Derringer, the late Jeffery Porcaro, and a pre sellout Larry Carlton). My friends, these guys could play. If your system is unable to play “Chain Lightning” with Derringer’s sharp & wicked guitar riffs and Porcaro’s thundering drum fills both loudly and with ease please resign as an audiophile and take up bowling.

Here’s something you can buy new that represents the state of the art in vinyl today. The artist is Sonny Landreth, bayou slide guitarist extraordinaire. The LP is called Outward Bound and you can buy a new pressing of this from none other than Classic Records (RTH1032-1), and while you can also get it on CD, why would you? For a modern rock recording, Outward Bound is dynamically challenging for a system. The players showcased here don’t spend much time tacking it easy. Mastering, once again is by Grundman, and while the pressing is good, it doesn’t measure up to the oldies that have discussed previously in this section. Again, this material needs to be recreated at full volume, yet always in complete control and with all of its original tonality and timbre intact.

The language of audio (and now video) is critical if we are to make ourselves understood. The bad news is that most of our vocabulary is borrowed from photography and other visual arts. Terms like imaging and focus really have no place in a audio, but they have become terms of art that we all use without thinking about them. Even the oft used term bright refers to brilliance of light rather than anything even remotely related to sound. Still, it’s just too late to buck the semantical system, so here are some notable CDs that I use. Please note that some of these will be easy to find, while some a bit rare.

A good starting place is Amazon.com as their search system allows you to find CDs by a number of different criteria from performer, piece of music, ensemble, label and catalog number. Tone, timbre and ambiance: Three tests, one CD One Minute and thirty-four seconds! The Cowboy Junkies / The Trinity Sessions (RCA 8568-2-R) Track 1: “Mining for Gold.” This classic traditional tune, sung a cappella by Margo Timmons will tell you more about what your system can and can’t do than any other minute and a half of recorded music can. It was recorded using the famed (notorious?) Calrec Ambisonic microphone in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. What you should hear, what you must hear, is the sense of the church’s physical size and space even before Timmons starts to sing. In the center of the space you should hear Timmons’ earthy, smoldering yet sweet voice at once anchored and yet floating in the center of the soundstage. Can you hear it? If you can you’re already most of the way there. If you can’t, well, “Houston. we have a problem.” Until you can get this most basic test right, your system will be stuck in neutral.

Midrange pitch precision and speed of attack and decay: Laurel Zucker & Susan Jolles / Images for Flute & Harp / Sonatine for flute & harp Victor Frost (1952-) (Cantilena Records 66016-2) Track 14 Moderato e deciso. Lots of luck finding this gem…it took me weeks to find it. The flute and harp cast their notes squarely on pitch and the interplay between the distinct voices create quite a challenge. Listen for any tendency for the flute to sound wispy or tonally dispersed. It is not a function of the recording. The harp’s strings start and stop quickly so any sense of slowness or muddying tells you that something bad is happening. As an aside, this is a truly fine piece of modern classical music in a sea of amusical junk. This CD is worth the trouble of finding it, and trouble you will have.

Small scale ambiance & image placement: Gabriel Fauré The Two Piano Quartets / The Ames Piano Quartet (Dorian DOR-90144). The entire CD is the very pinnacle of the genre in both performance and recording. A good system has to place each of the three string instruments in their own sound field with the piano well focused, yet expansive. A weak system will have the notes of the piano jumping (seeming to come from different positions as the pitch changes) and the strings may become crowded together or unnaturally spread out. Again, not the easiest CD to find, but it’s out there and in print.

Large scale ambiance & image placement: Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet in G minor / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Vox Cum Laude MCD 10018). Again, not an easy one to find but a treasure. To my knowledge, the only current release featuring Schoenberg’s orchestral transcription of this seminal piano work by Brahms at the height of his creative powers. The job of recreating the sense of a full orchestra in one’s listening room is at once irresistible and impossible. The scope and sweep of the dynamics are just too much, not to mention the sheer space and complexity that the music presents. Still, we must try: What we want here is a sense of size and majesty without strain. A great system will be able to approach this ideal and lower volume levels and the poor system won’t be able to get it right at any level. Listen also for a natural portrayal of shifts between the loud and the soft and everything in between. Any tendency to draw the presentation of the music toward the speakers, like light from a flashlight, is bad and is illustrative of a system that has reached its limits.

Dynamic shifts, tonal consistency & complexity: Beethoven-Liszt Piano Transcriptions Symphony No.6 / Glenn Gould (Sony SMK 52639). Want to hear Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony as if for the very first time? That’s what it’s like to hear this wonderful Lizst transcription of this sadly overplayed, yet marvelous piece. By giving a solo piano virtually all of the symphony’s themes, Liszt strips the melodies and harmonies of this piece bare. One can hear much further into the piece without all of the timbre and voices of the full orchestra. A system will also reveal if it has any problems recreating a sense of tonal complexity without a feeling or tendency toward confusion. Gould’s playing and the recording are beyond reproach. A superb system will keep the tonal nature of the piano consistent whether the notes are played fast or slow, loud or soft. How does your system capture these essentials?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather a sampling of recordings I trust to ask and answer basic questions of essential system musicality.

How to evaluate high end audio gear: Choosing reference recordings