I just wanna get up here and cook, man.

Downbeat is one of the oldest music magazines in the world.  They have been publishing since 1934. This is incredible.  Downbeat primarily covers jazz music.  Much of jazz was (and is) performed on acoustic instruments, or electric instruments where ‘fidelity’ and ‘natural-ness’ of tone is the desired effect.  If you have been following this website you will probably guess that this is not of great interest to me.  The late 60’s/early 70’s were an inclusive, experimental time for instrumental music though – consider Miles’ Bitches Brew period, Melvin Jackson, and even our friend Steve Douglas – and equipment manufacturers were beginning to create devices that our scale-ripping friends could use up on the bandstand.  For evidence, let’s turn to some Psych-era issues of Downbeat and see what was on offer…

Selmer was not the only firm to offer an ‘electric saxophone’ kit.  I have owned a few that VOX marketed as well.  Basically these devices offer combinations of various primitive sound effects, from distortion, filtering and reverb, up to actual monophonic pitch-tracking.  Some of the effects that you can get with these things are pretty radical (literally).  Check out the earlier Steve Douglas post for an example.

Along the same lines, here’s a slightly later offering from Maestro, the effects division of Gibson Musical Instruments.

In an earlier post, I briefly covered the Gibson GA100, a late-50s guitar amplifier which was intended for use with classical guitar and acoustic bass.  Baldwin marketed a similar product in the late 60’s.  Willie Nelson has used one of these for decades with his lil buddy Trigger.

And while we’re on the subject, how about an amplifier that REALLY sells to the jazz guys?

I have used one of these (with the similarly humongous 2×12″ extension cab) and they are pretty funny…

Alright so if you’ve made it this far, I am guessing that you are prepared to follow the link below and see more of this fun stuff.

SEE MORE CIRCA 1968 DOWNBEAT ADs FOR OFFBEAT EQUIPMENT…

Continue reading I just wanna get up here and cook, man.

Mobile Personal Space

Finally got my act together. Moving to California.

Got the van hooked up.   Custom Curtains.

Chose the perfect window-shape to tell what I’m about…

But most importantly- got the sound going.

Found this company that made the sound system for the Dead.   Now they make lil’ mini-cabinets for cars (and vans).

It’s gonna be a great trip.

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

‘Hard Truckers’ is a company that makes speaker cabinets and supplies touring equipment for rock bands.  Specifically, it seems, bands in the ‘jam band’ scene.    From their website, it appears that they have been at-work in their current incarnation since 2006.

The roots of this company go much deeper, though.  According to Blair Jackson’s ‘Grateful Dead Gear’, ‘Hard Truckers’ was formed in 1975/1976 after the Dead went on ‘hiatus’ and their roadies were put out-of-work.  But these were no ordinary rocknroll roadies – these were the men responsible for this great icon of the concert industry:  the Wall Of Sound.

(images scanned from Mr. Jackson’s book.  See photos for attribution).

I am not a Grateful Dead fan, but I have always been fascinated by images of the Wall Of Sound.  Jackson’s book tells the story of this bold and bizarre experiment in live-sound-reinforcement.  It’s a long and involved and technical tale, but suffice to say this:  this was a band that was willing to go all-out, no expense spared, in order to try and solve what was essentially a new problem: how do you get ‘good’ sound for a loud band in a space that holds up to 20,000 people?  And the space was different every night?  Stanley Owsley, the Dead’s chief sound engineer, explored this issue, and the solution that he chose to pursue was  to build ‘An integrated system where every instrument (PS: and the vocals) has its own amplification, all set up behind the band without any separate onstage monitors” (Jackson, p. 132).   Ironically, this is the same logic that informs the “latest and greatest” “innovation” in sound-reinforcement, the very un-rocknroll Bose L1 system.

The Wall Of Sound did not last long, and the expense and operational-intensity (aka HASSLE) involved with moving and running this system is one of the factors that Jackson cites in the band’s decision to take a long mid-seventies hiatus…  which is what lead the out-of-work Dead roadies to create the Hard Truckers company.

The little 5″ Hard Truckers that my pal Sundancer put into the Hermosa Beach Express (btw- FWIW – that watercolor and that original Hard Truckers product sheet came from the same lot) were essentially little micro versions of the PA cabs that the HT dudes had been making for Dead.

What a strange story.  Check out Jackson’s book if you want all the details.  It’s worth a read.  These guys were really pushing the limits back then.

No one has ever published a book that tells the history of rocknroll sound reinforcement.  This book will come someday.  It’s a too-often overlooked part of the audio world.  I heard a rumor that someone was working on a book about the PA system used at Woodstock, and this would be a good start.  In a future post, I plan to dig a little bit into vacuum-tube PA heads.  There is a lot to explore there.

Has anyone tried the Bose L1 system?

Anyone ever come across any of the original 1970s Hard Truckers cabinets?

Prepare The Piano! With a synthesizer?

‘Prepared Piano’ is a time-honored technique of altering a Piano’s sound “by placing objects (preparations) between or on the strings or on the hammers or dampers.” Wiki tells us that John Cage is the most noted proponent of this form, and the great Erik Satie was an earlier practitioner.  Sounds like good company to be in.

But why stop with the strings, hammers and dampers?  Why not put something on the keys?

Dubreq was a British instrument manufacturer in the 60s/70s.  Dubreq is most famous for its Stylofone, the little toy synthesizer instrument that had its star-moment in the bridge of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” It’s called the Stylofone because you play the ‘keys’ with a stylus (pen) rather than by direct contact.   You can still buy a Stylofone.  I have one, and it’s the best musical instrument you can buy for $14.99.  Potentially useful for certain types of tracks.

So once Dubreq conquered the world with a keyboard-that-you-play-with-a-pen, they dropped this bomb.  The Piano-mate.  I picked up this lil weirdo at the Flea market the other day for a few bucks.  I had thought i was buying some obscure guitar amp.  I was so, so wrong.

Seems like there was a real obsession with the physicality of the keyboard over at Dubreq HQ.  Really a very uncanny obsession.

What is the Piano-mate?  Basically, it’s a Synth/Organ which does not have a keyboard of its own.  Instead, it has these 2 bars that you place ON ANOTHER FULL-SIZE KEYBOARD (let’s call it ‘The Host”). The bars have little plunger microswitches that rest on the Host-keyboard.

When you press a key on the Host, the Piano-mate responds with its own little squawk.    The Piano-mate gives the user 3 different sounds (roughly, organ, elec piano, and ‘synth’), and it also has its own vibrato section.  Oh and did i mention that it also has its own amp and speaker built in?  And and that the whole thing nests together into little recesses in its backside?  Really very odd.

The piano mate is interesting to me because it was not intended to be its ‘own sound.’  As the manual tells us,  Dubreq’s concept was for the Piano-mate to augment the acoustic tone of an acoustic piano.  So we are supposed to hear both sounds, acoustic and electronic, together as one experience.  It’s a very strange hybrid.

OK so how does it sound?  I find it a lot of fun to play.  In my assessment, it turns any simple little piano-tune into instant Roxy-Music/ 70s Eno ballad-majesty.   I recorded these 2 examples with my little Tascam DR08 dictaphone, aka the Digital Camera of Sound.

—————————————————————                           What you are about to hear is a single sonic event –  no layering or multitracking.  Give ’em a listen.

PianoMate_sound3

PianoMate_Sound2

This Is The Piano Mate Experience.

Microphone (hand) signals

Picked up this pair of circa 1951 Electro-voice 655A mics for $25 at the flea market yesterday.  These were the top-of-the line in 1951, retailing for today’s equivalent of $982 each.  Wow.  that’s a lot of money.

They had no cabling.  Just some bare wire.  They also came with this great little RCA MI 91-B mic stand.

Anyhow, a quick check with an ohmmeter gave an encouraging result, so i wired them up. And they sound great!  Not at all like what you would expect from 60-year-old mics that are beat to hell.  Very articulate, good level, pretty high-fi.  I own a ton of mics from the 50s and there are not too many American-made dynamic mics that I would actually want to use in a session.  These have real potential.

Anyhow, how about that circa 1951 price though?  I don’t think anyone was using these at home with their wire recorder.  Audio used to be serious business.

E. picked up this book at a library de-accession sale some years ago.  It was published by Hastings House in 1956, and it seems to have been used an a University of Vermont communications class.

———————————————————————- –  Microphone technique and ‘identification’ is a big part of the instruction on offer here.  Most of it is pretty unsurprising, but i found the extreme rigor of ‘Microphone hand signals’ to be really interesting.  I have worked in broadcast production and recording studios for years and I don’t think I have ever been aware of a truly codified system of ‘hand signals’ for producers to use in the studio.  Anyhow, here’s a quick lesson from the past.  Also -check the ‘turntable hand signals’ at the end.  These all need to end up in a hip hop video.  “Open my mic!”

Follow the link for many more awkward-looking gestures.

Continue reading Microphone (hand) signals

Getting your moods together

El Cajon, California was probably a pretty mellow place in 1978.

This dude is killing it on stage.

How about these likely lads?

… and her…

I am not sure what happened to “Musician’s Supply, INC” of El Cajon.  Does anyone know?  Were they bought up buy another firm?  Did their offices burn down after some sort of early ‘rager?’

MS, INC., may be gone, but Ibanez is still going strong.  Sadly they don’t make these Gibson copies anymore.

Bob Heil was a major maker/operator of live-sound touring equipment back then.  He was out of commission for a long while but now he’s back with a line of microphones that are getting great reviews.  Here’s some of Heil’s c.1978 offerings, again from MS., INC.

I love the very DIY, shop-y style of this Heil kit.  Seeing this reminded me of what a great story Bob Heil has.  Read all about this fascinating audio pioneer here and here.

Anyone have any thoughts on the new Heil mics?

Anyone still using his c.’78 audio equipment?

TECH: antique theater equipment

It’s a sign of real accomplishment for an artist to have a monograph of their work published.  I would imagine that a few hundred are published worldwide by recognized publishing companies each year.  But much more rare is the collector’s monograph.  That’s right.  You have amassed a collection of (x) that is so stupendous that “let’s make a book about it!”  And the book costs like $60.

Of all the cults and sub-cults of audio-equipment collecting, few are more rarefied and costly than collecting antique movie-theatre equipment; especially equipment made by the Western Electric Company (hf. WE).  I won’t go into WE; the company had such a complicated history filled with intense government regulation, so tightly intertwined were they with the communication industries in American life; check out wikipedia for the details.  Suffice to say that, along with RCA, WE was a main manufacturer of the equipment used to playback sound in movie theatres at the dawn of the sound-film era (late 1920s).   Since the equipment was designed for such purpose, quality and reliability was very high.    Also massive.

(from “Recording Sound For Motion Pictures,” McGraw-Hill, 1931)

Here’s RCA’s theater system from that era:

(from ‘Audels New Electric Library,’ Audel+ Co, 1931-1958)

Mr. Yashima had quite a collection of this stuff.

(scanned from “Makoto Yashima Collection,” Seibundo, Japan)

It’s hard for me to say what the value of these WE components is, but i can easily imagine single pieces trading in the 5 figures.

Getting back down to earth, WE stopped making theatre-sound equipment in the late 1940s due to anti-trust regulations (complicated, right?), but RCA kept on building it.

This brings us into the realm of more accessible (even downright cheap!) devices.  Even though this later hardware may be inexpensive nowadays, we are still dealing with equipment that is designed for ultimate reliability, and really very good fidelity.  After all, tens of thousands of people sat in these theaters every year, paying a good fee in order to watch and listen to the latest films…  this is a case where quality really matters.

I  picked up this circa 1960 RCA 9362 booster amp for…  maybe… $70?  on eBay a while back.  I had no idea what it was, but it looked like it might be useful in the studio.  And here is where it gets technical….

Continue reading TECH: antique theater equipment

ICON: Guild Instruments

Even if you have never played a guitar in your entire life, you are probably familiar with the Gibson and Fender guitar brands.

These companies have existed for decades (a century for Gibson) and they are, at this point, American icons. The brands themselves, divorced from the actual products that they represent, get licensed for use adorning other products.

(web source)

Other great American manufacturers are even willing to co-brand with these companies.

(web source)

Gibson and Fender guitars are of good quality, and their ‘classic’ models are functionally/sonically very different instruments, so it makes sense that they have existed for so long in opposition as healthy competitors.
There are, of course, other classic American guitar brands. Martin guitars. Gretsch Guitars. And Guild Guitars. Martin has been around for over 150 years, and they are primarily very demure acoustic instruments.

Gretsch is a newer (80 years?) brand, and instead are known for garish electrics of varied quality but undeniable curb-appeal.

And then there is Guild. Guild never really had a strong identity. They kinda walked the line between acoustic guitars for ‘serious’ folkies and electric guitars for players looking for ‘something different.’ But I have always found them to be the best value in a used (vintage) guitar. The acoustics are a great balance of the chime of a Martin acoustic and the growl of a Gibson acoustic. I love my old Guild acoustic.

It’s much better then my Martins, and i can’t afford a good vintage Gibson, so… Guild is where it’s at for me. And the electrics combine Gibson build quality with the offbeat charm of the cheaper American vintage brands like Harmony and Valco. If you feel drawn to Harmony and Silvertone vintage electric guitars, but you need something that will actual stay in tune and play well… get a Guild.

GUITAR was (is?) a British guitar mag. I picked up a pile of back issues while on tour in England years ago. Here are some great examples of Guild’s 70’s lineup, taken from advertising in GUITAR. (other manufacturers on display in the same issues are Peavey, Ibanez, and Barcus-Berry).

-please follow the link for gallery of vintage British Guild Ads, as well as the conclusion of this piece…-

Continue reading ICON: Guild Instruments

Saul Marantz and The Roots of Great Design

A few years ago I bought a pile of old electronic parts from an anonymous junk dealer.  Random stuff- 5 lbs of crappy ¼” jacks,  some VU meters, a box of giant knobs, etc.  The dealer also had a box of old AES Journals.

The AES, or Audio Engineering Society, is just what the name suggests.  A professional organization for those who work in audio.   I don’t know what the main focus of the AES is nowadays (i am not a member), but in the early 1960s it was very technical.  Not so much an organization for people who engineer audio (IE., use equipment to manipulate audio signals), but rather an organization for people who engineer the equipment that recording engineers would then use to manipulate audio.  Let’s put it this way:  there’s a lot of math involved.  Here’s a contents page from 1964.  This issue was devoted to tape-recorder noise reduction. As in, designing the circuits.  Not just building or using them.

There are some more accessible articles, like this piece detailing a custom-made audio console:

…and, of course, all those great old advertisements.

Anyhow, when i had the chance to examine the circa-1970 AES journals that the dealer sold me, it became apparent that they had once been the property of one Saul Marantz.

I knew the name Marantz as it applies to audio equipment – my wife in fact has a complete (circa 1995) Marantz hi-fi system in her studio – but i knew a little about the man.   Turns out he was a fascinating character.

From the NYtimes: “ A man of many parts — photographer, classical guitarist, graphics designer, collector of Chinese and Japanese art — Mr. Marantz was fascinated by electronics from his boyhood days in Brooklyn. His passion for music led to his first attempts at building audio components…. After service in the Army during World War II, Mr. Marantz and his wife, Jean Dickey Marantz, settled in Kew Gardens, Queens. One day in 1945, he decided to rip the radio out of his 1940 Mercury, where he rarely listened to it, and put it to more practical use in his house. But that transplant required building additional electronics to make the radio work indoors. Such was the hook that snared Mr. Marantz for life.”

Saul Marantz was a  career graphic designer at the time.  He left this career once his Hi -Fi components (co-designed with engineer Sidney Smith) took off.

Learning that S. Marantz had been a graphic designer (and collector of Japanese art) really put the puzzle together for me.  The extremely elegant appearance of all the Marantz products (until he left the company in 1968, at least) always made a big impression on me.  Early Marantz hardware was high-end, sure – with prices and specs close to McIntosh pieces – but their visual design is in a league buy itself.

(web source)

(web source)

In another of the Marantz AES journals, S. Marantz receives an achievement award for outstanding contribution to consumer audio equipment.

The ‘classic’ Marantz designs were introduced between 1950 and 1964.  After that point, it became a ‘name-only’ company.  The more recent Marantz-branded products are of good quality, for what’s it worth.

How important are visuals to your appreciation of audio hardware?  How important the tactile interface with the devices?

When everything is reduced (enhanced??) to a touch screen, with the visual experience of audio tools be heightened, or reduced?

The Limits of Control

How much control over their audio do music-listeners want and need? At the very least, we can agree that they need to be able to turn the sound on and off.  Control over volume (level) is probably the next most important thing.  But beyond that… what is really necessary, what is really desired, and what is just marketing?

I came across this RCA  vacuum-tube reverberation system this past weekend at the flea market.  It was new, in the box, never removed from its packaging.  Likely an ill-advised Christmas gift from the Eisenhower era.   It cost me one dollar.

This device was sold as an add-on to certain RCA stereo hi-fi consoles of the late 1950s.  Owners of these certain consoles could purchase the unit, open up their console, install a few metal boxes, plug in some cable harnesses… and voila.

The listener would then be able to selectively add reverb (ie., artificial echo) to whatever audio they were listening to.  Overall, the whole operation is about as difficult as installing your own car stereo.

This concept seems patently absurd to me, and i love reverb.  I love reverb on my guitar amp, i love the reverb chambers and plug-ins that I use in the studio…  but the idea of adding reverb to a recording which has already been mixed a certain way…  it simply would never cross my mind.

Getting back to my earlier line:  beyond on/off and level, what do we really want/need as audio listeners?  Someone decided a very long time ago that Bass and Treble control was pretty much a necessity, and there knobs (or sub-menus, as the case may be) have graced pretty much every audio amplifier since.

These controls were originally marketed as a solution for ‘poor room acoustics.’  Really?  It seems a little fishy to me.  If I go into a room that is bright-sounding, do I attempt to speak in a bassier-voice?   Used properly, there is no harm i suppose.  OK so Bass and Treble (note the convenient binary; also the reference to the musical staffs) seem alright.

So once we’ve given listeners control over the relative amounts of low-and-high frequencies, the next thing that manufacturers introduced were these reverberation units.  And they made them for everything.  Hell, they even made them for CARS.

(web source)

So weird.  Here’s a few 1970’s Japanese-made units.  This was clearly not a short-lived craze.

(web sources)

So we’ve given listeners the ability to control frequency response.  We’ve given them the ability to manipulate the apparent size of the space in which the recording took place.  What’s next?  In the 1970s, the DBX corporation sold hundreds of thousands of units just like this.

(web source)

A dynamic-range controller for home audio listening.  Now consumers could elect to give their recordings more dynamic range (IE more volume difference between loud peaks and quiet passages).  The stated intent of this was to make up for all the dynamic range that is ‘lost’ in the recording process.  Really?  I am pretty sure that whoever recorded that album was conscious of the dynamics that were present.  Why mess with it?  Anyhow, certain of these DBX units could also compress the source material.  IE., give the audio LESS dynamic range.

Equalization control and artificial reverb augmentation still exist in most home audio amps today.

They have renamed the reverb control as ‘sound space’ or something like that, but it’s the same idea.  ‘Take an audio signal and put it in a different space.’  The do-it-yourself dynamics processors seem to have been largely phased out though.  I don’t consider myself an audio purist, but there is something about all of these devices that really seems nonsensical to me.  Overall i get the feeling that  designers  ran out of knobs to put on the boxes, so they had to make new boxes and populate them with more knobs.

There’s one more angle that i’d like to consider:  So over the years, consumers have been given the 3 main types of audio processing that recording engineers have used in the studio for 60 or more years:  those 3 categories are *frequency balance, *ambience, and *dynamics.  In the past 20 years, though, recording engineers have been given tremendous new control capability due to Digital Audio Workstations, e.g., Protools.  What could this mean for consumer hardware?  Will audio waveform editing, time compression/expansion, and automation control soon be available in consumer audio hardware?  Is it already?

Does anyone actively engage with the ‘sound-space’ controls on their Hi-Fi receiver?  Are they useful?

Mixtape: Fall 2010

I buy records.  I don’t seek out particular titles or pay more than a buck or two per LP; I go to estate sales and flea markets and dig and dig and dig for stuff that i have not heard yet (or not heard in years).  I pick up a few hundred per year.  It gets more difficult  (but also more rewarding) with each passing year to find music that i have not heard.  I generally look for rock and soul recorded between 1965 and 1975.

I like this way of experiencing new music because there is a bit of a folk-music quality to it.  As in: whether I like it or not, I am limited to listening to music that other people in my community were listening to some time ago.  It’s all music that shaped the hearts and minds of people who drove these same streets, lived in these same houses, played in the bars of my town many years ago.  Anyhow, of the 800 LPs that i buy each year, 60 will have a track that I like.

Those 60 end up on these seasonal compilations.  Tracks gets transferred from LP through a Proton  preamp and into Protools for trimmin.’   I use a Benz MC20E2 cartridge, which I highly recommend if yr in the market for a new cartridge.

Here’s the list for this season.  Link through for the details…

Cochise “Home Again”

Alive and Kicking “Tighter, Tighter”

Fairport Convention “Meet on the ledge”

Mark-Almond “Speak Easy It’s a Whisky Scene”

Dave Mason “We just disagree”

Mel and Tim “Starting all over again”

Jay and the Americans “Since I don’t have you”

Marvin Gaye “Troubleman”

Bobby Whitlock “Song for Paula”

Flaming Ember “Westbound #9”

Sandy Denny “It’ll Take A Long Time”

Macondo “Never thought I’d See You Go”

David Lannan “Morning”

Otis Clay “A House Ain’t a Home”

Steve Marcus “Tomorrow Never Knows”

Tufano-Giammarese “I’m a Loser”

Kevin John Agosti “Lighthouse Madness”

Jerry Jeff Walker “LA Freeway”

Al Green “Together again”

Gene Clark “1975”

Continue reading Mixtape: Fall 2010