I’m no longer a fully-fledged vinyl junkie, since I discovered 5 channel sound. My large record collection, mainly of jazz, dates back to my teenage years in the 60s and the years when before becoming a full-time History teacher, I worked part time in a specialist Jazz record shop. My first love is 1960s jazz although taste has broadened. I still collect vinyl from car boot sales and charity shops, and if I can bear to, I sell or trade it on. Since I retired from teaching, I do voluntary work in my local Oxfam and Cancer Research UK shops sorting and pricing records.
My interest in HiFi stereo goes back to the days when the BBC transmitted an hour of stereo music a week on Saturday mornings in the late 1950s with one channel via the radio and the other via the TV. It got me interested in ways to hear the music better. About 25 years ago I realised that although I had expensive tastes in HiFi, they were beyond the means of a teacher, and anyway better equipment meant less to spend on music. I was happy enough to compromise with a Rega, a Creek 4040 and a pair of old Leak Mini-Sandwiches.
Then the revelations: at a Heathrow show I heard a Garrard 301, a Croft Micro, a rebuilt Leak Stereo 20 and a pair of Quad ESLs. I realised I was hearing and feeling the music so much better, and I began to look around for equipment like this. At the show I also came across the long-defunct semi-underground magazine “Audio Conversions” with a glorious series by Eric Stubbes “Memoirs of a DIY HiFi Nut” which would have reduced Heath Robinson to hysterics. It detailed a system which began with a Connoisseur BD1 turntable floating on an inner-tube filled with oil and ended in homemade concrete speakers. This was a route to HiFi that looked affordable and fun.
Soon afterwards another jazz collector introduced me to the London Live DIY HiFi Circle and I began to learn and build and modify and tweak and drive my wife mad. We gather in a pub once a month, swap and pool experience and information. We also meet every few months in each other’s houses to show off what we’ve put together. There are some awesome systems: I’ve seen French widows flex by over an inch when one member showed off his subwoofers (15 inch drivers in 15 foot transmission line enclosures made from the cardboard tubes used to cast concrete pillars to hold up office blocks). I’ve also heard exquisite music from vinyl and some digital sources of a quality easily equalling high-priced high-end systems, but at a fraction of the cost.
When I took early retirement a few years ago with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease, I thought my DIY days were over. Wrong – even if my soldering has got a lot worse and I’ve given up trying to learn electronics and I don’t even think about attempting anything involving live H.T. That still leaves speakers, turntables and cables. I can still do things which get me closer to the music.My Current System:
Previously I used a charity-shop Marantz CD63 as a transport, modded by damping the mechanism and case with bitumen, Bluetak and Plasticene. And yes – there are big differences between the sounds of different transports used with the same DAC; we tried out a number at a meeting.
Later I came across a design by Greg Montford on diyaudio.com for a 48inch MLTL (mass loaded transmission line - it looks like a slender, ported bass reflex design but isn’t). Borrowing on the maths of Greg’s design and remembering the deep impact of the tall, thin pentagonal Pentachord speakers heard many years ago, I decided to build the MLTLs in pentagonal cabinets of my own design. I figured that I simply(!) needed to keep the same line length and cross sectional area as Greg’s design.
Ignorance soon ceased to be bliss. Pentagonal panels have different internal and external dimensions varying with the thickness of the wood. It took a week of re-visiting O Level Geometry to devise a pentagon with suitable angles that could be cut with a bench saw and another to construct a spreadsheet that did all the calculations. Assembling the pieces involved vertiginously steep learning curves and many mistakes, but I got there eventually. I even managed to add ribbon tweeters using a crossover based on another Jim Griffin’s design. They go down to 35Hz and I use them with a REL Storm subwoofer.
Earlier in the year, after reading Paul Messenger’s recent pieces and revisiting Ben Duncan’s series in HiFi News, I put in a dedicated spur for the system (I got it professionally connected to the consumer unit). It made a big improvement for the outlay.
Is it any good? Well naturally I think so, and to my ears it compares well with high-end systems I have heard at the shows. Overall it’s a bit like living with a vintage sports car: it involves tweaking, cosseting, repairing, coaxing and cursing. It is fun, though and the feeling of achievement when my system really sings is priceless.
My favourite records
Miles Davis 1963 Concert My Funny Valentine (remastered CD is excellent)
Many readers will know this material already. Put simply, these records are musical and sonic masterpieces. The musicians are on top form, relaxed and confident. However, I don’t intend to deal here with the musical aspects, and I refer you to Ian Carr’s superb musical biography “Miles Davis: the Definitive Biography”. Instead I will focus on the sonic aspects and the question of which of the available versions of this material has the best sound.
The Van Gelder studio at this time was the large living room of his parents’ suburban house, which had been built to his father’s plan and had a glass fronted control room. Van Gelder himself was an optometrist who had begun recording jazz as a hobby and he had built much of his equipment himself. He was much sought after by the jazz labels because he captured the sound and immediacy of the instruments like few other engineers. He was respected and admired by the musicians was the engineer of choice for the Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse labels, for which he recorded an unrivalled body of work. As Dr Rudolph Van Gelder he also recorded and mastered classical recordings for the Vox label.
Moreover Van Gelder preserved the sound he captured by mastering and cutting his own lacquers, which he signed with a trademark RVG (later switching to a stamp) in the run out grooves. When you got a Van Gelder piece of vinyl you got his sound, not someone else’s idea of how it should be processed, equalised or cut. Van Gelder recorded only in mono at this time: he thought stereo imaging was a distraction from the sound of the instruments.
His recordings have the kind of presence and immediacy that often comes from a very simple technical setup. (cf the Decca Tree, or the 3 – miked orchestral recordings in the Mercury Living Presence series). In their original vinyl issues these 4 LPs are stunning: I’ve had incredulous visitors refuse to accept that 50 year old mono can sound like that, especially when I tell them it was recorded in someone’s suburban living room. The recordings will really test any digital or vinyl system: Miles plays muted trumpet with the mute very close to the microphone, yet properly reproduced his sound is sweet or skittish or spiky by turns. If there is any harshness or distortion in his tone, then something’s wrong somewhere in the equipment.
I had long owned these 4 titles on vinyl and later had picked up 20-bit CD versions in the Original Jazz Classics (OJC) Series from Fantasy (now part of the Concord Group of labels) who own the original tapes from the Prestige label. When the 24-bit Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions 4 CD set appeared in the summer of 2006 I bought it because it: a) put all the material from the 2 days in 1956 into chronological order of recording (throwing a new light on it); b) included the earlier LP recorded by the Quintet in 1955; c) threw in a bonus CD of Radio broadcast; d) had a nice booklet and e) cost only £30. And yes, f) because I’m a bit of an anorak where Miles is concerned.
Recently I found that Rudy Van Gelder has remastered his 50 year old recordings of the 4 LPs in 24-bit. Now over 80, he has been working for some years on CD reissues of his classic sessions for Blue Note and has now started to work through the Prestige catalogue. Relaxin’ and Workin’ are already released and by the time you read this they should all be out. His remasters are replacing the OJC 20-bit issues and cost about £8 each. (I even found them for £6 each at HMV in London’s Oxford Street, so shop around).
Van Gelder has claimed in interviews that he is now able to get the sound he wanted to get in his original recording sessions and also says on the sleeves that he remembers well his discussions with the musicians about the sound they wanted and now feel (50 years on) that he can achieve it. Fellow anoraks will probably sigh and reach for the credit card, but anyone who hasn’t got this music, or wants to improve on 20-bit versions, will be wondering which version to buy, and just to complicate things, there’s also a Hybrid SACD of Relaxin’ available for under £18 to take into account.
Note: The original 50 year old master tapes are beginning to show signs of wear – hardly surprising with all those reissues - and recent versions are beginning to show “dropout”, where the magnetic coating carrying the signal has fallen off, producing a fragmentary gap in the music. Be warned that this is much more noticeable through headphones than speakers.
Comparing digital versions of Relaxin’
I have Relaxin’ in 4 digital versions (the old 20-bit version; on Joe Tarantino’s Legendary Quintet set in 24-bit; remastered by Van Gelder in 24-bit and on the SACD Hybrid). I had thought that the 24-bit Tarantino set was going to be hard to beat, with its sweeter high frequencies and clarity putting it way ahead of the now superseded 20-bit issues. I had been quite happy with it, but could just not resist a Van Gelder remastered copy going for £6.
When I first put on the Van Gelder I immediately noticed tape hiss, which was all but absent from the Tarantino issue. My initial reaction was that it sounded somehow “grainy” - less clear, less etched, less extended. Then I heard the drum sound and realised that the RVG was reproducing timbres in instrumental tone that were absent from the other issue. The “grain” was the quite different tone of the metal rivets in the cymbal: these now had a metallic edge as they rose and fell with the strokes of the stick. There was more detail on the RVG: Coltrane’s entry on “I Could Write a Book” sounded quite different - more breath, more harmonic resonance to the saxophone notes. Paul Chambers’ bass had more wood in its sound, and Miles’ harmon mute wasn’t as pure – but you could hear air moving through it and it was more natural. Oddly, the piano sounded duller and a little muffled in comparison with the Tarantino set. There was also a difference in levels, with the RVG noticeably louder.
I then went in for extended comparison, with and without an upsampling DAC, and carefully adjusting the levels using an SPL meter. I found the RVG the more involving and listenable of the two 24-bit versions, a view that was confirmed when I moved on to the material on Workin’. The Tarantino set now sounded artificial and too clean, while the RVG sounded more like real horns, real metal cymbals and a wooden double bass.
I can only conjecture that whatever processing had removed the tape hiss in the Tarantino version had also removed other fine detail (including some of the harmonics that produce timbre) to an extent that wasn’t apparent until Van Gelder’s remastering. Could the processing have also brightened the piano sound, and what I was hearing on the RVG was the way the studio piano really sounded? I can see that for some listeners the Tarantino might be preferable. It swings, it has extended and sweet higher frequencies and it sounds clean and clear, but it doesn’t have the rich, natural instrumental sound of the RVG.
The Relaxin’ SACD (on Fantasy) is also a Tarantino master and bears many of the characteristics of his 24-bit version, but has a much sweeter, airier top end and much of the missing instrumental timbre is back. Comparing the SACD with the two 24-bit issues was tricky: using a Marantz CD63 KI Signature and a modded Sony SCD 940, the SACD was a clear winner. However when I fed the Marantz into an upsampling DAC (Chris Found’s kit V-DAC4) the difference was considerably less, and the RVG issue sounded very close in quality to the SACD, while keeping its own characteristics and having a more controlled and natural sound in the bass. So I suppose the decision on the SACD may depend on whether you have an upsampling DAC: if so, you probably aren’t going to miss a lot if you stick with the Van Gelders.
You can get these titles on 45 rpm vinyl sets for an arm and a leg each. I haven’t heard these, but they are supposed to be superb. I admit I did think about it, but I have a modded Gyrodec that can’t play 45s at the moment. I do have a fine 180gm Analogue Productions version of Cookin’ and have seen it around on stalls at Hifi Shows. It sounds very nice indeed.
You may come across Fantasy/OJC vinyl versions of these titles in some shops, on stalls and in catalogues for around £10. Beware. The US editions of this whole series - not just these 4 titles – are of superb sound quality and a great bargain. However you need to make sure they are the US editions. A few years ago versions appeared which were pressed in Europe, easily identified by having the addresses of one or other European record companies on the back of the sleeve near the bottom. These are made from different masters and the ones I’ve heard are of noticeably inferior to the US issues. I’ve seen both versions side-by-side in dealers’ racks at the same prices.
In the second hand market, the 1970/80s Fantasy double LPs are reasonably easy to get, and are good value. They don’t sound as good as the US-pressed OJC vinyl issues but they are still very enjoyable.
Needless to say, original RVG signed Prestige issues fetch very high prices on Ebay. However it is possible to find genuine RVGs at reasonable prices in the UK. Until about 1965, the Prestige label was issued in the UK by Esquire Records, a small London-based label. Esquire imported lacquers made and signed by Van Gelder himself. These were then used to make the UK stampers, and the records were pressed in the UK. The quality of these UK pressings in the late 50s and early 60s was extremely high - much higher in fact than those of the US Prestige label, which skimped on pressing quality. If you find Esquires for sale at a reasonable price they are a wonderful bargain, and the same holds for some issues on the French Barclay label: look for the RVG in the run-out near the label. I have 3 of the Miles Davis Quintet LPs on Esquire, and no digital version comes near them.
GF 2: ‘PRESSING MATTERS - DECCA STEREO’
‘A cheapskate’s guide to vinyl from car boot sales and charity shops’
Some superb sounding new or reissued vinyl is available but choice is very limited, and it’s expensive. This guide to buying on the cheap concentrates on the label which was renowned for good sound and is widely available second-hand – Decca.
"Your playback system is only as valuable to you as your recordings, for its function is to reveal them." Laura Dearborn, Good Sound.
The first link in the chain of vinyl reproduction isn't the turntable or the cartridge - it's the record. Start off with a poor record and however well your system reproduces it, you will be missing immediacy and presence. No system can add what isn't there on the disc - although many have tried. Consider the chain of electronics and mechanics involved in turning a performance into a record:- miking, mixing, recording, mastering, pressing, reproducing – most of which use amplification equipment. In concentrating on the reproduction of what’s on the disk, we tend to take the others on trust, and in the case of miking, mixing and recording you have to like it or lump it. However you can exercise some control over the quality of the mastering/pressing you play on your system if you know what to look out for when buying. I do the bulk of my vinyl buying in car boot sales and charity shops and there are still amazing musical and sonic bargains to be had for as little as 50p a title. (If you feel particularly pleased with a charity shop bargain, you can always give them a donation.)
WHY THE VARIATION IN VINYL QUALITY?
Thus the record you play is minimum five generations away from the tape used by the engineer, and often seven or more from the original master tape, so you might be buying something very far removed from the original. The sound has been affected by being passed through several chains of electronics sometimes of variable quality and quite different sound characteristics, not to mention the chemical and mechanical processes involved and the judgements and shortcuts made by producers, engineers and technicians.
WHY EARLY PRESSINGS OFTEN SOUND BEST
Here's how to check whether any Decca pressings you come across are early (cut using valve equipment and sounding far superior) or late (after the company had replaced its cutting machines with transistor-driven lathes which sometimes give a veiled and thin aspect to the sound).
The earliest wide band pressings of a title (First Editions, if you like) have the words “Original Recording by Decca” on the edge of the upper left of the label. Later re-pressings have “Made in England” but sonically there is usually little difference. If you find a wide-band Decca, it will probably be an early and good-sounding pressing even if the master numbers - as described in the next paragraph - are high.
Wide-band labels were dropped during the late 1960s but the company still continued to use stampers made from the original early masters for the subsequent production runs until they had worn out and had to be re-cut. Consequently if you can identify the master by its manufacturing code numbers, you can still check if the pressing is liable to be a good early one even if it doesn't have a wide band.
Look at the number stamped neatly on the vinyl in the run-out groove, usually called the master or matrix number. It is not the same as the issue number appearing on the sleeve and label, since the issue number identifies the whole record, whereas the master number identifies the manufacturing master used for each side of the record.
Take as an example a record stamped ZAL-6125 1W.
Side two of this LP would normally be coded ZAL 6126 1W. The ZAL is an internal company code, and the 6125 is the file number for the master (or more accurately the mother made from it) used to make that side of the record. The important bit for our purposes is the last bit - 1W - where the number identifies the sequence of masters made from the original master tape, and the letter is the identifying code of the engineer who mastered it (W was a superb craftsman called Harry Fisher, E was another - Stan Goodall). This master was used to make metal stampers until it became too worn, when another master and mother would have been made coded ZAL 6125-2W. So our example record was made using the first master to be made up from the original master tape by the engineer Harry Fisher.
With wide-banders, the master numbers are usually not too relevant in terms of sound quality. Generally in the of case pre-1970 recordings on narrow-band labels, masters numbered 1-3 are the earliest and usually have the best sound. This is a very rough guide and of course there are exceptions, but numbers higher than 3 normally indicate later, and usually poorer quality masterings made after the company had switched to solid-state cutting lathes and automatic pressing machines. It depends on how many were pressed in total, since as the masters of popular items wore out more quickly and more had to be produced. The system isn't entirely accurate as mishaps with masters often throw the sequence slightly i.e. if 1W was rejected as faulty, damaged or wore out, the LP may be made up of 1W/2W or 1W/3W.
Decca phased out wide band labels in 1969-70 and issued everything with narrow bands, so you need to rely on the numbers, not the label.
If in doubt, my basic principle with narrow-band labels is to go for matrix numbers up to 3 as these will usually be from earlier and better-sounding production runs.
This coding was used for all Decca labels, including their reissue series, and for other labels pressed by Decca until they closed down their UK pressing plant in the 1979. Other pointers to sound quality you can use include looking at the space between the last track and the label. Dynamic compression and lacquer-cutting by automated machines which (unlike the engineers don’t actually listen to what they are cutting) usually produce uniform shading on the grooves and a wide gap between grooves and label: on a good pressing you can often see the modulations in volume.
DECCA REISSUE SERIES
TIPS FOR CAR BOOT SALES:
GF 3: MUSIC REVIEW
By George Foster
Pianist Keith Jarrett is phenomenally gifted. His solo concerts, spanning 35 years, are legendary feats of improvisation: he goes on stage not knowing what he will play and waits for the music to emerge. Their intensity can be exhausting for him and challenging for the listener.
A few years ago, however, following a lengthy absence from the concert stage caused by ME, he changed his approach: instead of one long wide-ranging improvisation, he began to divide his concerts into pieces of varying length, saying he had gotten into the bad habit of filling in between ideas. Now he waits silently between pieces for the music to come spontaneously. It makes his music more accessible, but without any feeling of compromise or dumbing down.
Jarrett constantly surprises: he can distil the beauty from a familiar tune by simplicity (like “Danny Boy” in Tokyo) so it seems you’re hearing it for the first time. I have heard him stun a Royal Festival Hall audience with a deceptively simple version of “Too Young to go Steady” which most of them knew only as a syrupy 50s period piece. Jarrett made them listen to it afresh and recognise its fragile melodic beauty.
“Old Man River” from Tokyo shows his musical range and his gifts. It begins with a slow, simple, intense statement of the melody, gradually gathering weight and force as the left hand underpins it. It gains speed slightly and, as you realise the debt the melody owes to Spirituals, subtly evolves into funky Gospel. Soon a repeated phrase transforms with what seems utter logic into a Bach fugue, which in turn metamorphoses into good old low-down Ray Charles funk. The striking thing about this six- minute piece is that there is no coy artifice about it, no sense of Jarrett being rehearsed in switching styles. The piece itself appears to be following a logical, organic development in which each disparate element grows naturally from the one before to form a unity. It’s moving, surprising, exhilarating and witty. It alone is worth the price of the DVD.
Jarrett’s improvised melodies also feel fresh and familiar at the same time. You think you recognise them, as if they are variations on tunes you’ve known forever - but there’s no hint of pastiche. When he plays a song-like melody, as in Part VII of Carnegie Hall, you wonder why you’ve forgotten the lyrics.
Carnegie Hall was his first New York solo concert in 25 years, and is in 10 parts plus 5 encores. His love of Shostakovich is everywhere apparent. The intriguing Part IX begins like Nancarrow and somehow ends like Lennie Tristano crossed with Gershwin.. Part I recalls Charles Ives’ piano pieces, while the 4th encore invokes Pinetop Smith. This superb concert is one of his very best recorded performances. Highly recommended.
The Carnegie Hall CDs have excellent, if slightly echoing, sound capturing the piano’s full range and the ambience of the crowded, ecstatic hall well. Both concerts also capture Jarrett’s intense playing mannerisms: he stands up, taps his feet and writhes while singing under his breath as he plays, oblivious to anything but the music. It’s more reminiscent of Little Richard than Glenn Gould.
You can watch him in full flight on the beautifully shot Tokyo DVD. Parts of this concert were released on CD as Radiance a couple of years ago, but here’s the full performance and 3 encores, totalling nearly 2 hours. The sound is excellent, with a choice of Dolby 2 channel, Dolby 5.1 or DTS 5.1. I found that the DTS option gave impressive body and depth to the piano sound, and three-dimensional solidity to the soundstage. (I’m often surprised at music lovers with good stereos who have never heard what multichannel can do with solo piano or small chamber recordings. I’ve seen an astonished group of hardened audiophiles sit bolt upright at the first notes of Wispelwey & Lazic’s magnificent Beethoven Sonatas on Channel Classics multichannel SACD.) The Tokyo Concert does not quite reach the heights of Carnegie Hall, but “Old Man River” and the DTS 5.1 sound easily make up for it. Highly recommended again. And you can always turn the picture off.
© George Foster 6th February 2007
GF 4 : Book review
This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession
by Daniel Levitin Atlantic Books 2007
One of my most vivid memories is of standing, aged 16, in a used record shop, one Saturday afternoon in 1962. At my request they were playing Miles Davis’s 1958 "On Green Dolphin Street". which I had found in the rack and was curious about. I thought Miles’ opening solo was fantastic, and then the hair on my neck rose as John Coltrane played the opening phrase of his solo, and my whole world changed. I’d heard jazz on the radio but nothing like this! Getting to hear more of this music and finding a good way to listen to it became driving forces in my life.
Many music lovers say they have experiences like that, but how do I account for what happened that afternoon? If you had asked me why I fell for this music I could give you a range of reasons, but I don’t think any of them would really have explained what hit me. Now I’ve found a book that has led me to the first real explanation of those 10 minutes: that experience, my subsequent tastes in music and my urge to reproduce it well – my obsessions – have been given a context they never had before and I understand what triggered it.
Daniel Levitin is a Cognitive Neuroscientist – an academic, not an MD - who came to his subject as a mature student after being a session musician, recording engineer and record producer. Cognitive Neuroscience concentrates on how the brain handles things like memory, information processing and emotion. It often uses special MRI scans to see which part of the brain is used in a particular activity, and what connections it makes to other areas of the brain while doing this. Moreover Levitin is based at McGill University in Montreal, home of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT)
Levitin explains the relationships between the functioning of the brain and the activity of listening in clear language, with examples from all kinds of music (some of which are on a special website). He describes recent discoveries concerning the way our brains work and relates these to questions such as how we keep track of timing and pitch; why we can recognise the same melody through changes of tempo, speed and key and do so for hundreds of different tunes; why we can identify a favourite piece of music from two or three notes. Any technical word or new concept is explained with great clarity. The style is extremely readable and accessible, but without dumbing down. The whole book is backed by impeccably scholarly but non-intrusive references to research published in peer-review academic magazines, some of it available on the Internet. In fact the US under-title was more scholarly :“the Science of a Human Obsession” rather than the “Understanding” used in the UK edition.
Although he doesn’t specifically address issues of HiFi sound reproduction in this book, Levitin (who was the keynote speaker at the US AES Conference in October 2007) provides enough thought provoking material about the experience of listening to give any HiFi nut a lot of things to think about. I found that I understood what I was listening out for, and what I was listening to, much more clearly. It has extended the range of concepts and insights I can bring to bear on my listening, re-assessing the things I do now and will be looking for in equipment.
He explains what was happening physiologically and psychologically in my adolescent brain that day in 1962. It certainly doesn't diminish the emotional aspect of the event to know that there is a "scientific" explanation of what happened to me - it enriches my understanding of my self. I now have a frame of reference for my reaction to that particular music at that point in my life; why I can replay, accurately in timbre and timing, those first notes of Trane’s solo in my head and how my tastes have developed since. Nor is it just a book about the brain – en route there are musical insights of great interest in all genres, ranging from why Mahler’s 5th is difficult listening to why Jaco Pastorius was the only suitable bassist for Joni Mitchell .
Levitin’s own research has demonstrated that by listening, especially to rhythmic music, and enjoying it, you increase the brain's production of Dopamine, a powerful chemical messenger, in an area of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens, which happens also to be an area of the brain which is known to react in the same way to “recreational” drugs and during sexual activity. He has, in short, found the physiological link between Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll!
I read it well into the early hours, unable to put it down. It was riveting, and I’ll bet you can’t say that about many books on Neuroscience. Essential reading for music lovers.
GF 5 George follows up the Daniel Levitin book review:
My explanation based on what I learned from the various chapters of Daniel Levitin’s book.
It was a time, (as the late poet Philip Larkin put it) “between the Lady Chatterley Trial and the Beatles’ first LP “(1963) and I was in the sixth form (now called Year 12) trying to find my place in the world. My group of friends had intellectual and cultural pretensions. We went to coffee bars, had all read “Catch 22” and one of the most sophisticated pieces of popular music we knew was Dave Brubeck’s hit “Take Five”, which had entered the UK Top Ten in late 1961. We liked this and I had read about Brubeck: like most teenagers I was looking for enviable novelties I could use to impress my friends – sophisticated, “cool” music. During my reading I must have come across the name of Miles Davis, and this shop visit was my first chance to hear his music. I could even afford the ten shillings they were asking if I liked it..
“On Green Dolphin Street” is an American “standard” tune of the kind my father liked, and I already knew it and had it stored in my brain in a form which would allow me to recognise the tune by either its melody or its harmonic chord structure (both quite distinctive and easy to recognise), even when played in a different style. By chance I had a built-in navigational aid for this tune to use when the musicians began to improvise around it.
Miles Davis’s solo, on muted trumpet, had a light delicate feel, and was close to the original tune but different enough to be gripping. Coltrane entered at full throttle, playing in a louder, frenzied style. He seemed to ignore the beat, and barely alluded to the melody, implying it in his first phrase, then going on to impassioned variations but keeping the harmonic structure. When I realised he was playing still somehow fit the rhythms and harmonies of the tune stored in my brain, I was spellbound. Miles’s solo had given me the pleasure of recognition of the familiar in a new form and I enjoyed the interplay between his ability to play wistful variations and mine to recognise them. With Coltrane’s urgent tenor sax, I was being taken on a magical mystery tour to places that were exotic and wonderful but beginning in and eventually returning to the familia placesr.
Then came contrast: Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax lightly dancing across the harmonic structure of the tune, and pianist Bill Evans, very different and introspective, playing with what Miles called “quiet fire”. Compared to the others I recognised that he was showing a different but complementary set of emotions.. Meanwhile that fantastic, foot -tapping rhythm section were stimulating Dopamine production, sending messages of pleasure throughout my brain and body. I was on a high and I liked it! This was addictive! At the time I couldn’t explain any of this, only experience it, and little bits of knowledge added over the years have only partly clarified things for me. It has taken this book to bring all this together for me.
Luckily my particular cochlear hearing system and brain were hardwired in a way that could accommodate what, in 1962, were perceived as dissonances in Coltrane’s playing (which to many, including my father, sounded like tuneless screeching). In fact my brain liked the stimulation of recognising familiar tunes when played in this way.
The brain builds a reference structure of memories and experiences, which it consolidates in the mid/late teens. My brain was just at the right point in its development to take this performance in: it had a combination of the right musical memories, experience and the facility to process, recognise and store what it saw as an exhilarating new event which it would like to repeat. It made a schema (a sort of template) based on the event, which it still references to classify new listening experiences – which is why this particular memory is vivid, because of constant replaying. It will be stored deep in the complex structures of my brain, and is so embedded that it will be among the last to go if my memories start to disappear – probably even after the one concerning the Garrard 301/Leak Stereo 20/Quad ESL system. Now I wonder if his next book…..
I still have and regularly listen to that LP “Jazz Track” on the Fontana label. Whenever I tweak and tinker and make changes to the sound system, if Miles’ band from that period doesn’t enthral me, I reverse them.
GF 6: on the THE LONDON DIY HIFI CIRCLE
The Circle was inspired by a long-defunct magazine called Audio Conversions, and among founder members was Eric Stubbes whose series "Memoirs of a DiY HiFi Nut" still makes a great read. We have a newsletter and an active newsgroup on Yahoo. Some of us meet once a month informally in a central London pub to exchange information and socialize. Four or five times a year we try to hold a full day meeting at the home of a member.
We have a membership of over 40, mainly in the London area and from a range of backgrounds and interests: architects, builders, plumbers, teachers, musicians, IT specialists, a seismologist (specialising in subwoofers) and several people active in the Hifi industry.
A number have their own websites. Between them members have some interesting (not to say seriously over-the-top) DIY systems, some using leading edge technologies and others vintage gear they have revived and modified.
To whet your appetite have a look at this S London member's system: http://jgbouska.tripod.com/audio/#StereoComponents
Hearing it is an unforgettable experience! I watched a pair of PVC French windows buckle by an inch or more when Jack ran a test tone through his subwoofers. Two well-known industry professionals who had been invited were gobsmacked, and one has just built his own version of them.
Take my own experience of the Circle as an example: I am a recently-retired History teacher and I joined the Circle over ten years ago with very little knowledge - just a desire to get more from the jazz records I collected. I had come across a copy of Audio Conversions at a Heathrow HiFi Show and turned up at an informal pub meeting.
I now have a system comprising: Gyrodec running off lead acid batteries; modded CD, SACD & DVD players; a kit DAC; valve preamp and various power amps; several varieties of home -made cabling and home-made tall, slim mass-loaded tranmission lines in pentagonal cabinets using Jordan JX92s & Fountek ribbons. I'm still playing with xovers on these.
I will be trying to clone a Teres high-end turntable using a couple of chopping boards, a Rega bearing, a floppy disk drive motor and some lead shot. My wife thinks I'm somewhere along the scale running from obsessional to just plain nuts but admits it does sound nice.
Projects demonstrated at previous meetings and written up in our newsletters include:-
The DIY Hifi Circle has changed the pub, since the wonderfully named Grouse & Claret has closed down.
We now tend to gather in the Horse and Groom, Groom Place SW1X 7BA.
The pub is tucked away in a cobbled mews. It's handy for those living in West or South London. and for the Piccadilly or District Lines. The Victoria Line provides a very fast link to Kings X and Euston (10 mins). Paddington is a bit more awkward - about 15 mins on the Circle Line. The Oxford Bus Service stops very close. There is plenty of parking and you can park free on meters or in most residents' bays after 6.30, but beware that some of the spaces are reserved for Embassies. The mews itself has some parking but the streets looked a better bet.
Coming from Victoria : It is just over 5 mins walk from Victoria station or 2 bus stops on Grosvenor Place, which has lots of Northbound bus routes (2, 8, 16, 36, 38, 52, 73, 82, 148, 436).