Thursday, December 29, 2011

Another visit with Dean Peer...

For the holidays, Colleen and I visited bass virtuoso Dean Peer at his home north of Austin. This was the first time I've seen Dean's home, which houses the studio in which he recorded last year's stunning album, Airborne. While the studio is tucked away in a corner of his house, it's still quite a sophisticated facility with sand-filled walls, a floating floor (also filled with sand) and plenty of room treatment. Dean uses a combination of a classic mixing board and digital software to achieve his innovative sounds on the bass guitar; he laments that the former will soon be obsolete, but he is determined to mix at least one more project on it.

A few weeks ago, I heard through the grapevine that Dean was working on some new material, and that a new album is probably in the works. Considering that Dean has recorded two albums in about twenty years, this is good news. Dean sat down with me and played a couple of the new songs, and they were quite different from what we've heard on Airborne and Ucross. What I heard was dark, moody and slightly sinister, but with a strong emotional undercurrent. For everyone who was surprised by the difference between his first two albums, you'll be even more surprised by the third.

At one point, Dean handed me a LP copy of the Dixie Dregs' Night of the Living Dregs from 1979 and asked me if I was familiar with it. He told me to take it home and listen to it and tell him what I thought. It turns out that Dean is planning to work with Dixie Dreg's bassist, Andy West, on the new project. It's been a few years since Andy played with the Dregs (he's a big-time software expert now), but it will be interesting to pair Dean's elaborate bass harmonics with Andy's more solid and fundamental sound.

Here are a few more pics from the visit. This is one of Dean's basses, the one featured on the cover of Airborne. You'll notice the "dp" on the fret; that's for Dean Peer, since this was made especially for him.

Notice the knob? Yep, that's a Cardas nautilus shell knob. Dean's association with Cardas Audio goes way back--they currently sponsor his shows, and he uses their cables throughout his gear.

These Meyer Sound studio monitors were interesting to listen to. As Dean said, "They're not much fun to listen to because they're so FLAT, but they're incredibly accurate." As I listened to him playing his bass through the mixing board and the Meyers, I was struck by the pinpoint imaging. It was strange to see Dean play a few feet to my right, and then have the sound from the strings placed so firmly between the speakers to my left. I certainly didn't think they were unpleasant to listen to, but they were very far from warm and romantic.

Here's the more modern side to Dean's recording studio...

...coupled with the more traditional side. As you can tell, Dean has kids.

And a healthy sense of humor.

And now my dog Lucy is famous, too. She was extremely curious yet well-behaved around so much expensive gear. Then again, she's used to it at home.

I'll keep you informed about the new album. I'm really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Getting Ready for CES

Now that the holidays are pretty much over, it's time to get ready for the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Professionals in the audio industry are usually quite stressed out this time of year--even more than reg'lar folk--because we have to follow up Christmas with the biggest trade show of the year. I know people in the industry who don't even celebrate the holidays anymore because it just gets in the way of CES preparations. Bah humbug.

Colleen Cardas and I will be there, of course, along with Bartolomeo Nasta of Unison Research. We'll be running the Unison Research Room--it's room 29-117 at The Venetian--so stop on by and say hello. We'll be featuring two systems in the room (one active, one static) that will debut no fewer than four new products from Unison and Opera Loudspeakers: the Unico 50 integrated amplifier, the Simply Italy integrated amplifier, the Opera Quinta loudspeaker and the Opera Seconda loudspeaker. We'll also be featuring such established products as the S6 integrated amplifier, the Unico CDE CD player and the affordable CD Primo CD player.

We'll be sharing the room with Audience, who have supplied us with their premium Au24 line of loudspeaker cables, interconnects and power cords. Everything will be plugged into one of their adeptResponse line conditioners. In fact, I have all the Audience gear here at the house and I've been playing with it over the last couple of weeks. It's truly fine gear, and we're proud to feature it in our room.

You might be asking yourself, "What, no turntable?" While we decided not to feature the Giro turntable in our room, it will be making an appearance in the Joseph Audio room. Jeff Joseph, a good friend of ours, requested to use the Giro in his room (at Room 29-140 at the Venetian), and we didn't hesitate to say yes. Rumor is that he's going to mount one of the fine cartridges from Soundsmith (remember the company that makes cantilevers out of cactus needles?) on the Giro.

The 2012 CES will take place in Las Vegas on January 10-13. Feel free to stop by and say hello to Colleen, Bart and me!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Black Keys' El Camino on LP

It was the middle of December, and I was just sitting down and composing my yearly Top 15 list for Perfect Sound Forever. I was trying to decide between Wilco's The Whole Love and Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues. Wilco was edging out, mostly because I'm starting to wonder how I feel about the Foxes' musical output as a whole. What was timeless on their debut album was slowly becoming just "novel" after two albums, and I worry that if they don't start evolving by the arrival of their third album, the antiquated phrasing of their folksy lyrics is really going to start getting on my nerves. But just as I was about to slip Tweedy & Co. into the top slot, The Black Keys burst on the end-of-the-year scene with El Camino. It's a game changer, to say the least.

I don't have to remind you of the innate and sublime coolness of the Keys. But here's an excellent example: the album is called El Camino, but the cover photo is of an old Chrysler Town & Country. I heard someone else ask, "Why is it called El Camino then? What's with the mini-van?" That's absolutely right, and that's why they're so friggin' cool. Put an El Camino on the cover and you think oh, they must like El Caminos. Okay. But put an old mini-van on the cover and you think "Why?" Yep. The Black Keys are already in your head. Cool, cool, absofrigginutely cool.

If it hadn't been for the exquisitely ambitious The ArchAndroid last year, the Black Keys' Brothers would have easily been my favorite album of 2010. I spent most of the summer of '10 with one or the other playing in my car CD player--and I spent a lot of last year behind the wheel. Brothers was so surprising in its stripped-down simplicity (it's just a guitar/singer and a drummer, much like the White Stripes) that it was hard to define what made the album so great. The lyrics were straightforward and based squarely in the blues-rock tradition without being encumbered with poetry, finesse and profundity. The songs were about love, sex and bad relationships--usually all three at once. El Camino doesn't expand upon that basic formula, but it does refine it somewhat.

This sounds like a bad thing, but El Camino is Brothers, only polished up and perfected. That doesn't mean the boys have sold out; they've just taken things up a notch. They know what they do well, and now they're more focused and confident about it. The songs on Brothers, while rooted in rock traditions, had such a warped and skewed feel to the production that it made the songs sound like lost '70s rock classics that existed in a spaced-out parallel universe. The songs on El Camino, by comparison, are from this planet. Listening to this album, you'll have that same sense that every single song (there isn't one iota of filler here--every song is equally strong) should have been a hit in 1967, or 1971...or 2011. The songs might not have survived a year like 1986, when the sheer testosterone in pop and rock music had been neutralized in most quarters, but all the cool people would have rediscovered the Keys once the '90s came around. The Black Keys reconstitute the greatness of classic rock, blues, soul, glam and even disco in the same gifted way as modern performers such as Sharon King and the Dap-Tones, or Raphael Saadiq.

If you're wondering if El Camino has a hit that's the equal of last year's "Tighten Up," that's a big affirmative. In fact, every song on the album hits that high. I especially like the opener, "Lonely Boy," which has one of the most catchy choruses I've heard in years: "Oh, oh-oh...I've got a love that keeps me waiting/I'm a lonely boy." Yeah, I know, I have a woman like that in my past as well. She drove me crazy. What a cool, cool song it is. It's in my head, and I can't get it out.

While Brothers was certainly a breakthrough for the duo, the flawlessness of this album results in the kind of glow that suggests universal appeal. Everyone I know who has heard this album is captivated by it almost immediately. I could use a lot of cliches to describe the Album of the Year--"firing on all cylinders"--comes to mind first. Expect El Camino to invade the collective unconscious of serious music lovers in a big way over the coming months.

Oh, and I'll take the time to dissolve the mystery of the album cover--the van in question was the band's touring vehicle in their early days, and they later sold it by jokingly advertising it as an El Camino. Evidently someone thought it was too cool to pass up. You'll feel the same way about the album.

(BTW, I got the LP because it includes the whole CD as well. I love this marketing trend with all my heart, because I can list to the Keys in my car and my home at the same time!)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rags & Ribbons' The Glass Masses on CD

Over the last few years I've been deliberate and thorough in my search for new music, resisting that "filling-in-holes-in-my-collection" mentality that comes from getting on in years and becoming locked in the rather misguided view that when it comes to rock, there's absolutely nothing new under the sun. Certainly my first instinct on a first listen to an unknown performer is to find the specific musical genre that fits, mostly so I can introduce a "RIYL" to my reasders, but I'm so tired of that type of thinking. In the last year or so I've noticed that the truly great new performers aren't reinventing the wheel of rock and roll, but devising an alchemy where familiar sounds are combined in a way that's absolutely novel. Think about Fleet Foxes or, even better, the Black Keys.

These thoughts sprinted through my mind about ten minutes into Rags & Ribbon's new CD, The Glass Masses. I couldn't quite resist playing a quick round of "Who does this remind me of?" when I heard this ambitious, theatrical and downright fun album, and I came up with Muse first, and maybe Queen second. The decidedly melodramatic vocals, delivered mostly in harmonies between keyboardist Jonathan Hicks and guitarist Ben Weyerhauser, have that same sort of sad Russian-esque folk strains of the latter while maintaining a fluid litany of Classical-strength piano runs as Freddie Mercury at his most deranged. (Drummer Chris Neff fleshes out the expansive sound of this far-reaching trio.) Yet this exciting sound is evocative of a time than derivative of a style, and it's probably been at least a couple of decades since you heard this all before. In other words, it's a cop-out to call these complex yet accessible songs anything but original.

Where Rags & Ribbons diverges from neo-glam is their earnestness, which in lesser hands can be a curse more than a strength in 2011 (see Coldplay's last three albums, which were truly awful). The vocals in the opening track, "Even Matter," do evoke Chris Martin's repertoire with their unsubtle emotional pleas despite the fact that the music is incredibly layered and ornate and therefore much more compelling. That feeling of hyper-sensitivity and forced poetry will pass once you realize that the second song, "Liar," reveals the boys can rock and weave intricate musical ideas at the same time, much like Muse and Queen. You might even feel a genuine wave of nostalgia when you hear a bit of Big Country in Weyerhauser's guitar yelps in "Abacus Kids," one of the stand-out tracks of the album. By that time you're just being silly, and you just need to drop the comparisons so you can sit back and enjoy this album.

With a few more albums, that earnestness might be replaced with a bit more confidence that might even be viewed as sexy--something Mercury and Matthew Bellamy had (and have) down pat. Despite that minor misgiving, Rags and Ribbons have a real ace up their sleeve, and that's sheer musical talent. It's rare to see young musicians have such mastery of both their instruments and their instincts this early in the game. I can't guess whether this trio will become huge in the coming months, but I won't be surprised if they do. The Glass Masses is an impressive debut, both unexpected and exhilarating in its success at just being a very old-fashioned way.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Unison Research Giro Review at TONEAudio

Our Unison Research Giro turntable--and I mean the actual one I own and play music on in my house--has just been reviewed by Jeff Dorgay of TONEAudio. Jeff, who was my old boss at TONE when I worked there from 2006 to 2009, was eager to review the Giro from the moment I received it and mentioned it on this very blog.

Jeff was even able to rush the turntable back to us in time for the Hootenanny on Friday, which Colleen and I truly appreciate.

You can read the review here. Thanks again, Jeff, for the great review!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Whetstone Audio Hootenanny

It's kind of amazing when an idea pops into your head, you plan for it and you execute it--and it's a success. Our idea for a music event in Austin came from humble beginnings. I've been in Texas for more than two years, Colleen Cardas has been here in Austin since early March, Bob and Stacy Clarke of Profundo moved to Round Rock a couple of months ago and Brian Di Frank of Whetstone has been here the whole time. We've joked about building an Austin Hi-fi Empire ever since we all got together, and I think we set a proper foundation last night by hosting our very first Hootenanny at Whetstone Audio.

The idea was simple. The Clarkes represent such stellar brands as Trenner & Friedl, Heed, Transfiguration and VivA, and Colleen and I represent Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers. What if we each assembled a system in Whetstone Audio and invited everyone in Central Texas to come to Austin, drink some beer, eat some pizza and listen to our best efforts? Although Colleen Cardas Imports and Profundo are technically "competitors" for your high-end audio dollar, we're all good friends and know that there's always room in the marketplace for high-quality music reproduction.

We only had one problem: how many people would show? Although there are a handful of high-end dealers in Austin, this is a music town, and the old audiophile adage that musicians tend to have shitty audio systems (mostly because they're spoiled by the real thing, and partially because many musicians tend to be po') may influence the number of people who would be interested in such an event.

After we all set up our systems and fine tuned them in Whetstone Audio's big yet crowded sales floor (Brian has a ton of great gear on display), we waited for 6pm to arrive with a modicum of nervousness. Brian ordered two Gigantor pizzas and plenty of beer supplied by Jester King Brewery, and the Clarkes brought some amazing wine from their extensive cellar, and we all wondered how much food and drink we would have to take home at the end of the night.

When 6pm arrived, cars started pulling up--much to my surprise. By 7pm, the place was packed. Suddenly, Bob and I were coerced into a stereo war, where he would play one track and I would play one track. Our systems were very different (his was solid state with a lot of power and dynamics, ours was tube-based and airy and delicate), but the crowd was equally thrilled by both types of sound. I will say one thing in the spirit of self-promotion: chicks dig our Giro turntable. There were a handful of women at the event, and every single one of them loved its looks. One even turned to her significant other and said, "We need to get one." Talk about WAF (Wife Acceptance factor).

By the end of the night we were all tired, yet excited and happy. We're even leaving the system at Whetstone for the next week or so because we were too tired to break it all down. (So if you want to come by and check it out, feel free!) We are planning future events at Whetstone, especially since Unison and Opera are introducing so many new products in the coming months--including a music server and a DAC. The Clarkes also want to keep coming to Whetstone. By the way, Brian will be hosting an event next month with Sean Casey of Zu, so check out Whetstone Audio for more details.

Setting up for the Hootenanny

Here are some quick pre-pics of the Hootenanny we held at Whetstone Audio last night. I'll blog about the whole event in a bit, but I thought I'd give you a little insight into what goes into the planning of these events.

Here's a pic of the system as it started to take place. We decided on the Unison Research Giro turntable ($3995) with the matching Unison Research UN1 cartridge ($550), as well as the Unison Research CDE CD player ($3995) as sources. We used the Unison Research Simply Phono phono stage ($1600) and its outboard power supply ($800). It was powered by the incredible Unison Research S6 integrated amplifier ($4895), which is a single-ended (parallel) pure Class A design that creates 30 wpc with EL34s from Tung-Sol. Everything was hooked up to the flagship Opera Callas Grand loudspeakers ($9995 per pair) with Cardas Audio Clear Light cable throughout.

Here's Bob Clarke of Profundo helping out by attaching the feet to the Opera Grand Callas loudspeakers. Bob and Whetstone Audio's Brian Di Frank helped out enormously during setup. Bob had come in earlier in the week and set up his system which included the brand new Trenner & Friedl Pharoah speakers, Heed Audio amplification and a Well-Tempered Amadeus with Dynavector 20X cartridge that was supplied by Brian.

Here's another view of the Callas Grands as they were being prepared. Note that beautiful mahogany veneer on the sides...I think this is the most beautiful wood I've ever seen on a pair of speakers, although the wood grain patterns on the Pharoahs were equally intriguing with their almost Asian appearance.

Even as we were working, Brian still had customers coming in. Here Brian is installing an Ortofon OM-5e cartridge on a customer's old Pioneer turntable. The customer came over and glanced at all the Rega turntables Brian had on display, and I think he talked himself into getting an RP1 turntable down the road. He stopped and admired our Giro turntable and probably said to himself, "One day, one day..."

And here's the system set up and ready to go. I have to admit that I loved hearing the Callas Grands in a much bigger room than mine (which is only about 12' by 14' with 11' ceilings). The rear-firing tweeters on the Operas need plenty of space around them to achieve a truly giant and extended soundstage. By 2pm I had the turntable assembled and the cartridge aligned (the arm on the Giro is exceptionally easy to work with and I had everything dialed in within 20 minutes or so). The system had a full four hours to warm up and play before the first guests started arriving at 6pm.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Hootenanny Is Tonight!

Our Music Event at Whetstone Audio is tonight! It will run from 6-9pm and we'll have plenty of beer and pizza. We will have our Unison Research Giro turntable on hand--the only one currently in the US--as well as plenty of Opera and Unison Research products. Bob Clarke from Profundo will also be there with gear from Trenner & Friedl (including the new Pharoah speakers) and Heed. Whetsone is located at 2401 E. 6th Street, Austin TX. See you there!