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January 2001

Two Part Contention:
Gearing Up for Las Vegas Again

Article by Jim Merod
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  CES Show-time is upon us again and, looking back to last year's calm bash at Alexis Park, I am struck by the prescience of mastering colleague and resident Nashville guru DENNY PURCELL's comments at a panel that we shared.

Purcell is one of the get-it-right and never look back unless you have a mad, compelling reason to rethink or reinvent your ground-refining activity. Purcell is the real deal: a mastering strategist with great ears and a big musical heart. He has the Grammy Awards to prove it. Last year we sat next to one another on a stage, fielding questions that probed the future of high-end audio in the Coming Digital Download Era or some such portentous topic projecting the demise of the musical universe as we've lived it for several decades. And there's the rub. 

The musical world has been in almost constant tumult across a long-lived adult lifetime. Six-eye Columbia jazz vinyl and Wilma Cozart Fine's glorious three-microphone Mercury classical recordings (along with the infamous RCA "shaded dog" records) spoiled anyone who had a superior vinyl playback system in the '50s and '60s. As vinyl was edged out of the market by compact discs an enormous deterioration of sound quality took center stage at just the point that a variety of affordable and state-of-the-art turntables hit the market. A well documented irony has played out in public audio discourse over the last ten or twelve years: vinyl never sounded so good until it became an all but utterly demoted medium for music reproduction. An old Aztec equation for the inverse square of perceptual ratios that pertain to the frequency of solar eclipses on Christmas morning dictates the law at work there. Just when a good thing begins to die it finds new life. Henry Adams noted these strange technological resurrections when he discussed the appearance of competing cultural paradigms: the Virgin would be forever surprised to find her empire challenged by the unnatural universe of the Dynamo.

There they are, joined together, musical spirituality against (and bonded to) technological change. My point is that the evolution of MP3 and a variety of digital downloading protocols all conspire to placate mostly younger audiences who look at computers as organic extensions. If it ain't digital it ain't "real," you dig? The age of analog glory is mostly a rumor unheard among their ranks. I'm surprised, over and over, by mature, quite hip musicians telling me that they are glad they can replace old "flawed" LPs with these wonderful 16-bit plastic discs. I seldom crank up the mental energy to do much more than yawn and mumble something about how amazed they'd be to hear, say, Miles Davis's SKETCHES OF SPAIN on a Linn LP-12 (just to choose a modestly priced high-end table). Last year, Purcell and I were both amused by the "coming crisis" of a world defined solely by compression algorithms... amused because, like yours truly, Denny Purcell is skeptical of hopes and fears that reduce a moment's technological flutter to a cultural stampede - - as if our musical lives are each instant at stake with no turning back from the instant's corporate stupidity. What is "new" is almost never what is "good" or of "permanent use and interest." Junk the new for the viable and time-tested old, I say. Test all new widgets against the standards of the wonking oink boxes that got us to think and to hear music differently in the first place... which is sometimes daunting, since thinking, related to the world of listening, can be contagious once you start.

Looking back a year at the crisis we survived twelve months ago, I look ahead to crises we do not know of yet. With the sort of no nonsense let's-get-down and dig out all the music on our tapes approach that Denny Purcell seems to take each day, you have a model for the steadfast rightness of skepticism in the floating realm of audiophiledom's technological hyper-ventilation. Assemble a strong sound reproduction system, I say, and work it into its best sonic circumstance. When you find a better amp, a better cable, things that you can afford and cannot afford NOT to include in your sonic life, then make a change. The alternatives are too little fussing, the refusal to tweak and experiment; or too much chasing after ever new things. 

Perhaps this suspicious outlook aligns me with brother Purcell and his masterful view that asks only for enough quiet, and time, to work the next best tape with music worth fiddling into improvements such as an angel or his demonic brethren might seek to clear away the dust of crises past and the ever looming, onrushing fury of techno-inventions that dump their gritty claims on us, at CES, each year.

All of which inclines me on a daily basis to stick with time-honored forms of madness. My '79 Mercedes 450 SEL with a European short stroke engine, and 380,000 miles, still gets me there in style. The same companion has made moments of reflection and glee more vivid across twenty-plus years. Thus I change components in my mastering studio only when I've been persuaded by the evidence of my ears that a new component has outgunned the old one. The two component changes that have most impressed me in 2000 have not been mega-buck techno-gadgets. One has been a refinement that amp-designer, all around musical wizard Steve McCormack laid upon my sturdy, steady DNA 0.5 (100 w/ch) amplifier.

The other was the entire line of Acoustic Zen cables that cable design legend Robert Lee inserted into my recording and mastering (and playback) chains. I took Lee up on his generous offer near the beginning of the year. The year has been defined sonically by these two changes - undramatic on the surface but deeply revealing in action. They have all but revolutionized my daily work with sound and music. I seldom think about any year in terms of "best of" this or that. Certainly, in the world of high-end audio components, I've enjoyed such year end retrospectives and the awards that are often cobbled together by upscale stereo journals. But my habits run closer to the ground. That's where you'll find me most weekends, recording one group or another. The following week is inevitably taken up with mastering and transfer choices that barely get accomplished in a five or six day mode of attack. Parenthetically, I'm struck by how few musicians, and production personnel, understand the slow evolution of such work, on master tapes, to get an end result that charms the ear, alerts the mind, tames the savage emotional beast, and pays some bills.

One wants it all to go quickly from capture to completion. Not so. The recording of music "live" (in performance, on stage, right here this very moment, etcetera) is wonderful, fun work. It is, in many ways, the least time-consuming part of the drudgery that goes into "making a boffo, refined album." My recording/mastering work is with jazz and blues and Latin music. I sometimes capture classical and flamenco music, and an occasional hilarious "first ever" altogether momentous occasion, such as (for example) Los Lobos hooking up with Ozomatli... which is delightful, and sincerely inspiring, even when the radio station head announces to you, five-minutes before airtime, that the "archival" recording you are doing for the cats in the two bands must now feed the station's sound board since their own engineer didn't get a fix on mic-ing strategies needed to get the music on the air. One plows on. One enjoys small and larger triumphs. One suffers fools less, year by year, and one accepts the disproportionate blessing of apparently small changes in a recording set up (or in a mastering rig) as they appear at hand.

Thus, my deep respect for Steve McCormack's monumental transformation of my mastering soundstage with his state-of-the-art magic upgrades. His McCormack DNA 0.5 amp is already, after a few short years of marketing success, a legendary amplifier. It needs no refinements, right out of the box (new or used), to make music sing with the right speaker system. But once you grant Maestro McCormack leave to bang around inside the 0.5 steel chassis, you are in for a musical treat that is out of whack with the modest charges he receives for such huge sonic refinement.

I've written elsewhere about the ways that McCormack approaches his "rev work," as he calls this. For the moment I will merely cite an authority who obliquely illuminates the change. Mark Twain noted once (or more often) that "a boy with a gun in his hand who, from ten yards, can't hit the side of his aunt's barn is able, without looking, to bag his grandmother with one pull of the trigger every time." This law of sublime indirection applies in the high-end audio world, too. It is no less subtle. It works like this. If you have a very good component, before you pull the trigger to shell out mega-bucks on another, why not see what can be done to revise and extend the strong performance of the one you've got? Not every amp-designer stands by his work as Steve McCormack has for twenty-something years. But, once you get in the saddle of his rev'd up DNA models, I think you'll wonder why the flavor of the month, or those $30k mono-blocks, somehow seem to fall a bit flat and give less bang than your bucks.

In addition, the change wrought in both my RECORDING work and, back home, in my MASTERING ACTIVITY by Robert's Lee's Acoustic Zen cables must be heard to be believed. I look back across this quickly fleeing year and say "thanks" to Maestro McCormack and to Maestro Lee because they each have lent enormous improvements to a superior set of sonic systems. That the changes they've brought forward are not merely "incremental" -- polite or subtle adjustments that add zing or whiz-bang sweetness -- but have truly DEEPENED and OPENED UP for new inspection, with enormous pleasure, every moment of my listening activity is a tribute to my good fortune and to their dedication to make powerful (in fact, ecstatic) music reproduction at genuinely bargain prices. The outcome of these spiritually-appealing but viscerally astonishing changes come to this: I have never heard so much musical detail, learned so much from my own recordings, and enjoyed every moment with each aspect of it all as I have this year. Steve McCormack's "rev work" and Robert Lee's appropriately named ZEN cables, together, like no other additions or improvements, jolted my several systems with vast sonic impact, stunning (and truly humbling) musical energy.

 

McCormack Rev Work  (760) 732-0352
www.SMCaudio.com

Acoustic Zen Technologies (760) 471-4899 www.AcousticZen.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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