Category Archives: Icons

The Future Of Audio (1962 edition)

IMG_0001In May of 1962 “AUDIO” magazine celebrated its 15th anniversary.  IIRC, AUDIO was the more consumer-facing half of what had initially been AUDIO ENGINEERING magazine; the AES Journal being created sometime in the 50s to carry the more professional articles.  Anyhow, for their 15th, AUDIO asked some of the experts of the time to weigh in on THE FUTURE OF AUDIO.  Harry Olson, certainly one of the greatest inventors of sound equipment who ever lived, had some comments that struck me as being incredibly prescient.  I’ve never seen this reproduced anywhere, so check it out, enjoy it, share it, and take a minute to speculate on where this is all going.

Olson_1962_part1Olson_1962_part2

 

Young James Jamerson is looking pretty tuff in 1958

James_Jamerson_1958Three years before he would buy his first electric bass, and then go on to pretty much define the vocabulary of that instrument, James Jamerson poses with his first bandleader Washboard Willie.  You can keep yr Jimi, yr Page, EVH, all those wheedley-wheedley motherfuckers, I’ll take JJ over him any day of the ever.  The fkkn best ever, a true innovator with a genius instinct for both rhythmic drive and counterpoint.

Also see:  here

Rare Tony Schwartz Interview/Profile From “Better Listening Through Hi-Fi” July 1957

Tony Schwartz is a towering figure in the worlds of audio production, advertising, and media studies.  I recently came across a very obscure, AFAIK never-before-reproduced (feel free to prove me wrong here guys…) profile on Schwartz from the July 1957 issue of “Better Listening Through High Fidelity” magazine (h.f. ‘BLTHF’). As far as I can tell, BLTHF was an advertorial publication distributed gratis via electronics retailers in the 1950s.  The author of the piece is Robert Angus.

DOWNLOAD THE ARTICLE: TonySchwartz_1957

If you are not familiar with Schwartz’ work, read this basic profile here.  Schwartz ranks alongside such luminaries as Brian Eno, Janet Cardiff, Morton Subotnik, and not too many others in my personal  pantheon of audio greats.  Schwartz is widely recognized to be the first person to successfully conceptualize and properly exploit the possibilities of tape-recording-as-art.  Not music recording or music production, mind you, simply documentary tape-recording. Schwartz then took this hobby, essentially, and went on to create one of the most significant careers in the history of advertising and media production as a producer and director of commercials.  His most famous production, which I teach in not one but two of my classes at the Uni, is the spot known colloquially as ‘Daisy.’ If you have never seen this short piece of film, take sixty seconds to watch it below.  You will see a no-budg spot that many media pundits acknowledge as having possibly decided one of the most crucial presidential elections in US history, an election that, had it gone the other way, could (and yes this is a stretch) have significantly altered the course of all human history.  Watch the spot:

NEways…  so, so much has been written about ‘Daisy’ that there is literally no way I can add anything new to the conversation.  Which is partially why I was so thrilled to uncover SOMETHING about Schwartz-in-his-salad-days that seems to have been largely overlooked.  As far as ‘Daisy,’ a quick google search will reveal much more than I could offer at this point in the evening, two-drinks-in as-it-were.  One more point before I go… in case you were wondering what brand of tape machine Schwartz was using for his editing work in the 50s:

Yup that’s a Magnecord.  If you are interested in learning more about Schwartz, let the man himself speak to you.  I recommend first his excellent book “The Responsive Chord.” For a buck-o-five you got pretty little to lose and maybe a lot to gain…

Bill Putnam and United Recording, Hollywood CA

Wow what a titan Bill Putnam was.  Not only did the man create some of the greatest audio equipment ever made, equipment that is still coveted and used on major records some 50 years after it was introduced, he also designed and built (and worked in) some of the greatest recording studios ever made (the later of which were bankrolled by Frank Sinatra, among others).  It’s almost impossible to think of a similar comparison today…  it would be like if the same dude who coded the best plug-ins that you use every day also engineered the hit records that you hear on the radio and also owned the world’s top recording studio, which he designed himself, and which Thom Yorke paid for…  anyway… amazing.  Here’s the room he built in Hollywood in the late 1950s.  Much more information is available all over the ‘net… you can start here

Moving from wide to close-up in these pics above: the studios, the control room, the console, and the console preamps, all designed by Putnam.  Okay so yr gonna move to a new town and build a new studio…  might as well design all new recording equipment while you are at it.  Putnam’s approach has inspired me deeply (on a much smaller scale…) with Gold Coast Recorders and the custom equipment that I’ve developed around my work in that room.  Here’s to hoping we have (even a fraction of) his success…

P.S.: David Kulka of Studio Electronics has made twenty issues of the URC company newsletter available for free download on his website.  The newsletters span the years 1964-1970 and they are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in ye olde recording studio lore…

Meridan, Mississippi 1973

Download the twenty-four page 1973 Peavey Electronic Sound Equipment catalog:

DOWNLOAD: Peavey_1973_catalog

Products covered in this catalog include: Peavey Musician amplifier head; Peavey Bass amplifier head; Peavey F-800G and F-800B ‘festival’ high-power amplifier heads; VTA-400 tube amplifier head (with 4x 6550 power tubes); Peavey Vintage model 110 watt combo amp; Peavey Deuce 2×12 combo amp; Peavey Standard amplifier head; Peavey PA120, Standard PA, and PA 400 boxtop-style public-address mixer/amplifiers; Peavey PA-6A and PA-9 console-style PA mixer/amps; and a full range of speaker cabinets include the Peavey 115, 212, 215S, 215, 610, 412, 215H, 11bS, 612H, 118FH, and 412S cabinets.

Oh that logo. So much has been said about that logo.  Here it is, already firmly in place in 1973.    It’s jagged, angular lines, amateurish lack of balance, and simple hi-con style seem to make it the granddaddy of all 1980s hair-metal graphic identities, and by extension, the graphic aesthetic of an entire youth subculture of the 1980s.  Could this be?  Or is it just a coincidence?  Peavey did try a re-design in the 1990s, but came back to the ‘classic’ in short order.

Has there ever been a more disliked logo in the very image-conscious world of popular music?  Does Peavey (the company or the man) realize this?  And do (they/he) give a fuck?  Maybe that’s the answer itself. Considering that Peavey Electronics began as the basement-industry of a high school kid, a self-taught kid who by age 24 would have his own factory in Mississippi, and less than ten years later the owner of one of the largest audio manufacturers in America, at a time when so much of the American electronics industry had fled this country for Asian manufacture:  I think it’s safe to assume that yes this is a confident, proud man who flies this awful logo as if to say:  this is me.  and yeah i can get away with it.  My amps are still gonna sell.  Semiotically it exists somewhere at the intersection of the Freak Flag/Pirate Flag/Confederate Flag/American Flag.  Complicated anyhow.  Oh let’s add Texas flag to that as well.  ( I know that Peavey is not based in Texas but how many people have you seen with Mississippi tattoos if you catch my drift).

Indeed.  What is power.  Is it an expression of man’s will to independence, his resiliency, his ability to triumph in the face of a difficult environment?  Or is it simply his desire to dominate other men?  It’s fascinating to note that in this lengthy catalog there are no guitar amplifers with less than 110 watts of power output.  There are no amplifers with less than two twelve-inch speakers (or four ten-inch speakers).  These are big amps.  Only big amps.  Peavey would eventually become (along with Crate) the standard-issue ‘small practice amp’ for kids and beginners in the 1980s, but there initial thrust was limited to these big, loud stage amps.

Above, the Peavey ‘Festival’ stacks of 1973.  Tube-powered VTA400 at left, followed by the 4oo watt solid-state guitar and bass versions.   I’ve owned and used several Peavey amps, but I have never plugged into a Festival.  I will say this, based on my limited experience with Peavey amps:  the solid-state circa 1985 Bandit 65 that I briefly used in high school was the the best-sounding solid state guitar amp that I have ever used.  The distortion character was incredibly tube-like; really uncanny (my other amp at the time was an all-tube Fender Champ 12, so I did have some limited frame of reference).  I later had one of those 2×12 dual-6L6/solid-state preamp combos from the 1970s; it sounded great in the room, probably due to the open-backed cabinet, but always fell short when close-mic’d.

Lately I’ve been noticing that folks are trying to get in the area of $400 for these old Peavey stacks; this is much more money that they were ten years ago, so I suppose the ‘vintage’ tag is getting attached to them finally.  I’m not sure if anyone’s buying them; I don’t see as many bands live in clubs as I used to; if you’re a young band who has chosen to rock an old Peavey solid-state stack over a (vintage or modern) tube amp, drop us a line and let us know why.  There’s nothing inherently better or worse about solid-state or tube amps; it’s purely a preference, a matter of aesthetics; the balance of favor has been with tubes for the past twenty years but that could certainly change someday.

 

 

ICON: Kustom Instrument Amplifiers: 150, 250, 500 series

Download the twelve-page 1972 Kustom Electronics, INC catalog for their 150, 250, and 500-series guitar and bass amplifiers.

DOWNLOAD: Kustom_150_250_500_Catalog

Kustom amps, with their ‘tuck and roll’ sparkle-Naugahyde upholstery covering, are a true icon of the rocknroll amplifier.  Bud Ross took the idea of RocknRoll=hot rods to its logical conclusion with these things.

Tuck and Roll custom hot-rod upholstery (web source)

Interesting how well the Rock-Music/Hot-Rod connection worked in the 50s/early 60s.  Consider the Gibson Firebird and Fender Stratocaster guitars, both of which had direct aesthetic relations to youth-favored automotive designs of the times.  At right: the 1953 Buick Wildcat (source).  Below that, the Fender Stratocaster, designed in 1953 (source).

I wonder why no one has made a Honda Civic or Subaru WRX flavored guitar (or beat-making software interface WHOA maybe getting too far out there…)

The 1940 Chrysler Windsor, designed by Ray Dietrich (source)

The 1963 Gibson Firebird, also designed by Ray Dietrich (source)

*************

*******

***

From Wikipedia:

Rockabilly and Motown musicians originally used (Kustom) amps. Other artists known for using the Kustom brand for live applications are Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Altamonts, Dusty Murphy, 3 and Sheryl Crow. Some of the most famous Kustom P.A. users include Creedence Clearwater Revival, Leon Russell, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, The Jackson 5, Carl Perkins,Alun Tan Lan(Y Niwl) and The Carpenters.”

All of the original 1960s and 70s Kustoms are solid-state amps, so their appeal nowadays is mainly for their cosmetic a(e)ffect.  These things were no slouches in the technical department, tho – the 250 and 500 lines shipped with optional JBL or Altec speakers (look for the silver dustcap on the drivers); furthermore, when you come across one of these things nowadays, they generally work well, which is more than can be said for most 40-year-old solid-state guitar amps.

Pictured above is a German 1972 pricelist for the entire Kustom line.  If there is enough demand I will scan and upload the entire thing.

(web source)

(Web Source)

A Kustom-Brand Police Radar gun.  Hot Rod Cars are still a focus here, but the situation has changed dramatically.  And yes the same man is responsible for both product lines.   (Web Source)

Since Kustoms are so iconic, there is a ton of information on the web regarding these artifacts and their very colorful and storied creator Bud Ross.   Ever wonder what the connection was between Kustom and Kasino?  And a gambling addiction? Promo branded halter-tops?  Unsavory-looking plush toys?  And police radar guns?  Yes folks it’s all true.  This is an American Epic.  Here’s my pick of the best:

History of Kustom/Kasino amps and Bud Ross

A great stockpile of vintage Kustom literature

Personal site of a Kustom super-collector

History of the various Kustom lines

Polymath Bud Ross on-camera delivering an oral history of Kustom and his later ventures

BOSS guitar effects and associated audio products 1984

Download the entire twenty-four-page 1984 BOSS full-line catalog (7.3 MB file).

DOWNLOAD: Boss_Full_product_Line_1984

Products covered, with full specs and photos, include: Boss DD-2 digital delay, HM-2 heavy metal, CE-3 and CE-2 chorus, BF-2 flanger, CS-2 Compression Sustainer, DM-2 (analog) delay, OC-2 Octaver, VB-2 Vibrato, TW-1 touch wah, GE-10 equalizer, plus many more pedals; HC-2 handclapper and PC-2 Percussion synth; DE-200, DM-300, DM-100, RX-100 tabletop delay/reverbs; SCC-700 effects controller; BX-600, BX-400, KM-60 mixers; plus many more odd items.

Volumes can be said about the BOSS brand of audio products.  BOSS was created in 1976 as a guitarist-oriented division of the ROLAND corporation of Japan.  They arrived at their classic form-factor of a small cast-metal pedal with large foot-switch and safely recessed knobs in 1977.  Since then, these devices have become as ubiquitous as the electric-guitar itself.

Audacious, perhaps, but probably accurate.  When a young kid gets the guitar and amp he has been wanting, the next thing he wants is a ‘pedal.’  And more likely than not, that pedal will be a BOSS pedal.  To a novice guitar-player, these effect units literally open up a world of possibilities, offering the potential to free the instrument entirely from the acoustic sound that the vibrating strings create and into a world of engineered audio.

When I was a kid learning to play guitar, the BOSS digital delay pedal (ie ‘Echo pedal’) was our holy grail of pedal effects.  These things were so expensive that almost no one could afford one.  They cost as much or more than your amplifier.  On the other hand, we had no interest in the DM-2 ‘Delay’ (read: Analog Delay) pedal, which has more limited echo time and ‘impefect’ ‘analog processing’ which causes noticeable high-frequency loss on the echo repeats.

Ironic now that the DD-2 digital delay pedal is nearly worthless, while the DM-2 and DM-3 analog delay pedals of the same era trade for upwards of $400.  I have been using a DM-2 in my live-performance guitar setup for several years and it is a truly great device.

I used one of these percussion-synths for a long time too.  These are very cool if you can find one cheap.

I can’t imagine that this mixer sounds very good but shit it is funky.   A cosmetic holdover from the 1970s BOSS line.

Have you seen ‘THE BOSS BOOK” (no author attributed) from Hal Leonard Publishers?

I encountered this 122-page volume at the bookshop one afternoon and I have to say: it is one of the best books in the (albeit limited) genre of ‘musical-instrument-writing’ that I have come across.  Extremely dense, rigorous, and well-illustrated.  If you have ever used guitar-effect pedals in your work, I highly suggest that you pick it up. “TBB” traces the development of each of the effect devices from their inception through discontinuation.  This history is in many ways the history of the evolution of the electric guitar and audio processing in the 1980s.  A lot to think about.

ICON: Marshall Amplification

What greater visual icon for the mythic virility and power of the circa-1970 Rock-Star than the “Marshall Stack?”

(web source)

(web source)

(web source)

Jim Marshall was a drum-shop keeper in London in the mid-60’s who began cloning the 1959 Fender Bassman amplifier in order to give British Musicians the popular American-Amplifer sound they wanted at a lower price made possible by domestic UK manufacture.

By around 1968 he had arrived at the classic Marshall formula of a simple Fender-derived circuit using 4x EL34 output tubes, Drake transformers, and a head unit sitting atop 2 large sealed cabinets each holding four 12-inch speakers.  It is the use of the EL34 tubes (rather than Fender’s 6L6s) , with their greater power and gain, along with the ‘tight’ bass response afforded by the large speakers in the sealed boxes, that are most responsible for the ‘Marshall’ sound.

It is said that Pete Townsend was the impetus for the large human-height ‘stack’ aspect of the amplifier.  The form of these things certainly suggests the huge volumes of sound/noise that they can produce.    A great many bands used the ‘Marshall Stack’ in the 1970’s.

Nowadays, the ‘Marshall Stack’ is generally only used by true hard-rock and Metal bands, as well as the occasional ironic user.  Well, maybe ironic.  Who knows.

(web source)

***********

*******

***

Today we will look at some early 70’s Marshall promotional material from the PS pile/archive.

Click on the link to download the entire 20-page 1971 full-line catalog: Marshall_1971_cat

Some circa 1970 Marshall oddities.  I have never come across any of these for sale anywhere.  Anyone?

20-channel Marshall ‘festival’ mixer.

400-watt Marshall PA rig circa 1971.  The Mixer unit actually had some pretty intelligent features for the day, like a 2-watt headphone amp with a simple single  knob to cue any individual channel or the mix buss.

And who used this stuff?  Joe Cocker, apparently.

Marshall even marketed a Microphone at the time. The Model 3700.  Looks shitty. It is nearly impossible to research this unit due to the fact that an entire line of Marshall (no relation) Mics is currently being made.  Killer mic box, tho.

….And don’t forget the Marshal Super-Sound T-shirt.  Wow.  What can you say about this ad.  Note that only small and medium are on offer.

The Marshall Artist does turn up from time to time.  I could get into one of these.  Seems to be like a BluesBreaker plus reverb.

We’ll close this out with a couple of original pricelists:  USA 1972 and Germany 1974.   A reality check:  the ‘stack’ of a 100-watt head plus 2 4×12 cabs was listed at $1600 in 1972. This equals $8629.69 in current US currency.  Even allowing for usual 40% retail price deduction, that was still a $5000 amp.  Good lord.

DESIGN ICON: MXR audio effects in the 1970s

MXR Innovations began making their first product, the Phase 90 phase-shift pedal, in the early 1970s.

(web source)

Phase-shift is an audio effect which adds a gentle ‘swirl-y’ motion to a sound.   The sound of a clean electric guitar picking through a chord progression with a phase-shift effect is one of the truly definitive sounds of 70’s rock music.  Listen to the rhythm guitar part in this long-haired chestnut and you will hear what I am talking about.

MXR did not invent the phase-shift effect, but their Phase-90 did more to popularize it than any of its predecessors.  MXR’s real ‘innovation’ was the high-quality, small physical size and indestructible nature of the device.  In contrast, previous phase-shift pedals tended to be bulky, noisy, and not especially durable.

BTW, the MXR phase 90 is still made today, 40 years later; and it is still in wide use.  MXR Innovations no longer exists as a corporate entity; the brand-name and trademark were sold in the 1980s to the Jim Dunlop Corp, who now manufacture Phase 90 pedals in various subtle varieties.

A book could be written on the history of MXR, and it is not my intent here to share that long and fascinating story.  If you are interested in the details, I highly recommend Tom Hughes’ excellent book “Analogman’s Guide to Vintage Effects,” which features candid long-form interviews with a few of MXR’s founders.  This book is a must-read for anyone who uses audio-effect processors in their work.  Thorough and essential.

Anyhow, let’s just take a moment to celebrate the incredible and powerful industrial design and graphic design of the iconic MXR brand.  In a previous post, I included a scan of one of the early MXR ads.  It still looks beautiful and evocative today, 35 years later.  Everything that these guys did in the 70’s was done with care and attention to detail. Consider these c.1980 MXR dealer-support materials, including a full scan of the circa 1980 full-line catalog (16pp).

DOWNLOAD THE FULL CATALOG: MXR_c1980_catalog

From the Hughes book, in the words of MXR founder and Phase 90 creator Keith Barr (later, founder of Alesis (!)):

“I mean, to me, MXR was an art project.  Yeah, it was a business, and yeah there was the little game to see how cheap we could make a unit, but still make it reliable…Richard was the guy who was really into the sound, I was the guy who was into clever design, Tony was the guy who was into digital circuitry, and all of us were into…that’s why they ended up calling there company ART, A-R-T.  We had this idea collectively that what we were doing was an artistic expression; it was the way this thing was packaged, the way it looked, the way it felt- all these little things made up what it is” (Hughes, 234).

Oh yeah… in case you were wondering… not only did Barr go on to create Alesis (the company that literally changed the world of home-recording forever with it’s ADAT digital 8-track),  the other MXR designers Richard Neatour and Tony Gambacurta created ART, arguably the most innovative guitar effects company of the 1980s and 1990s; and Mike Laiacona, MXR’s first salesman, created Whirlwind, which is still one of the major forces in meat-and-potatoes basic pro-audio hardware.  Incredible.

Spring Reverb Defines a Mythic Space Where The Legends of Rock Live

Listen to this audio.

Gtr_Amp_Close_up

You don’t need me to tell you that this is the sound of an electric guitar playing through a guitar amp (speaker).  You would believe me if I told you this was what you were hearing.

***********

*******

***

But what about the space that this happening in?  And what does the sonic event of this speaker-movement sound like in that space?  I can show you.

GtrAmp_in_a_room

…And you would believe me that this is the space in which this event is taking place.

***********

*******

***

Humans are pretty good at using our ears/brain to evaluate a sound and judge the space in which that sound is occurring.  We never had to do this much until about 100 years ago, because until we had technology to record/transmit and playback sound as audio, the only way to hear a sound was to be physically present where the sound was being generated.  So baring blindness or blindfold, if you heard a sound, you did in fact have good direct knowledge of the space in which the sound was occurring.  But we now have the technology to capture and reproduce sounds divorced from their origin in time and/or space.  And we also have devised technologies to synthesize the sound of spaces.  We can synthesize very good imitations of real physical spaces that we have experienced in the flesh.  And we can also synthesize the effect of imaginary and unreal spaces.

Listen to the guitar performance again.

GtrAmp_DigitalReverb_Church

I have taken the close-mic’d guitar-audio you listened to initially and ‘placed it’ into a ‘church-space’ by processing it with a computer-reverb program.  There is no actual physical space captured here, other than the 2-inches between the microphone and the speaker.  But, if we suspend that knowledge, I think that we can all reasonably accept that yes it does in fact sound like the guitar-performance is taking place here:

(web source)

Many generations of computer-programmers have labored for decades to create that sonic illusion, and they have done a pretty good job at it.   Even the cheapest pieces of audio-hardware nowadays come with these digital-reverb programs built-in, and there are generally dozens of ‘spaces’ on offer, from Halls to Churches to Rooms etc.  And most of the time, these reverb-programs are effectively able to convince us of the spaces that their names suggest.

But what about spring reverb?  AKA., guitar-amp-reverb?  AKA, the reverb knob on your old Fender (or whatever…) amp?  Exactly what space is defined there?

Let’s take a listen.  Here’s the same close-mic’d guitar performance you heard earlier; this time, though, I have turned on the reverb knob on the amp.

GtrAmpSpringReverb

It’s evocative, right?  But of what?  And more importantly, of where?  Our brain is telling us that the guitar is now in some sort of space.  But what is that space?  Well, literally, it’s the space and the springs inside this little 9-inch steel can in the back of the guitar amp.

(web source)

But emotionally, we don’t feel like we’re hearing the sound of this little sardine can.  Instead, the guitar-performance (and our imaginations) have been transported to some sort of mythic Rock-Legend-Space.  How is this possible?  Because we have heard this same goddamn accutronics-reverb-tank sound a million trillion times since were little kids.  Because nearly every good-quality guitar amplifier made in this country or any other between the years 1965 and 2000 had one of these little mechanisms in it.  Furthermore, we never heard the sound of this ‘space’ when we were walking down the street, or to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a snack (crunchy carrots).  We have heard this space a zillion times always and only in context of Rock and Roll.  Either on record, on the radio, or in a club watching a band on an elevated stage.  Through these millions of associations, the sound created by that little metal can has come to represent a sort-of Mount Olympus of Rock and Roll.

(web source)

Or, if you like, the Hall Of Justice of Rock.

(web source)

***************

**********

******

Have you ever read Rock Dreams by Peelaert and Cohn?  It’s a collection of illustrations (with some explanatory text) that attempts to visualize the legends and myths that we associate with various Rock and Soul performers.

All of the personages represented in the illustrations are real, actual people who were born, lived, and died (or will).  But they have been placed in settings which are simultaneously unreal and yet totally expected.  The scenes depicted in the images are not actual places where these people ever set foot.  Instead they are spaces that we have created in our collective imaginations.  And they are very fitting.

I think the spring-reverb box in the guitar amp has come to define such a space.  Not a space of inches and miles, walls and ceilings, tiles and columns; but an imagined space where Rock and Roll lives; an imagined space that we all imagine with uncanny similarity.