The Making of a Jazz Audiophile
It can be a dangerous thing to have a good system,” says bass legend Ron Carter of his own recent home audio experiences.
Hmm. We’ve tried, in these columns, to show that having a great stereo rig is a good thing. So why would Carter make such a statement?
“Well, you can hear things in your playing that you may have missed in the [recording] session, and that can be a real eye-opener,” Carter explains.
Whew. He goes on to describe how the Tetra 506 speakers (tetraspeakers.com) he purchased last year have finally made him a believer in the legitimacy of so-called high-end audio, and thus Carter, who certainly possesses a pair of the best ears in jazz, helps stoke the fires we fan monthly in these pages. “If you have something that more adequately represents what went down in the session, it can truly enhance your appreciation of the music,” Carter attests. He then adds, “One reason I never got involved in this before was because most of the speakers I heard presented a false impression of what I heard inside the band.”
Thus, Carter validates a major tenet of the Audio Files credo: Better equipment is a good thing for jazz lovers.
And apparently jazz musicians, too. Keith Jarrett, as he expounded at great length in this column last year (Oct. 2005), has benefited greatly, both personally and professionally, from his awareness and appreciation of superior audio gear. He says the sound of his commercial recordings has steadily improved as he’s evolved his home-stereo rig, since he can now better evaluate the sonics of the test pressings of his discs prior to release.
It makes sense that a musician, whose life and livelihood revolve around music, would ensure that their home-listening environment would enhance their work, not to mention increase the personal pleasure of their “recreational” listening. But this is not always the case. I have a close friend who is a very well-known player living in New York, tours with the best musicians around the world, yet continues to hear music at home through a $200 system he picked up maybe 20 years ago. Yeah, he still gets the music. But he’s missing so, so much.
But there are other jazzers who have seen the audio light, one being Billy Drummond, drummer with Steve Kuhn, Eddie Henderson and Carla Bley, among others. His need to hear his favorite drummers with as much detail as possible is one of the factors that led him into the world of high-performance audio.
“I’ve always been a sound freak,” Drummond explains. “What I do in playing the drums, and I guess for everybody, is all about sound. That’s why you like who you like, because of their sound, say, the sound of Tony Williams’ ride cymbal, Blakey’s Gretsch drums or Vernell Fournier’s brushes…the sound of Miles’ horn, or Billie Holiday’s voice. It’s all about their sound. High-performance audio will get you closer to their sound, though nothing can take the place of hearing the cats live. However, it still gets you pretty darn close to what they actually sounded like,” he exclaims.
Drummond continues, “Play Miles’ Live at the Plugged Nickel on a good system and it’s spooky! Or those mid-’70s ECMs, you know, Jack’s [DeJohnette] cymbal sound, those dark ride cymbals. The better the system, the more information you get off the disc and the closer you get to those sounds you admire. Having a better stereo has certainly helped me hear the nuances of all those greats,” Drummond professes.
Ron Carter agrees with Drummond regarding the concept of “more is more” when listening to jazz. “With these new speakers, the sound is warmer and not so brittle,” Carter says. “The piano sounds more real and doesn’t sound like a department-store piano. I’m definitely hearing things I never heard before. Like, sometimes my bass line can get wiped out by the bass-drum beater, but a good system can separate the bass drum out from the bass and you can better hear what the bass is playing,” Carter says in his ultra-relaxed, Zenlike way of speaking.
Though his father was a bit of an audiophile back in the day, Drummond was into the sound of the drums themselves long before he turned his attention to stereo equipment. He says, “I was trying to learn about drums, so I’d buy, say, everything recorded by Jack DeJohnette from 1965 through 1969 so I could figure out that cymbal sound,” explains Drummond.
Then one day, when on the search for some new equipment, Drummond had an epiphany that transformed the drummer into an audiophile. “I went into a shop to look for a new receiver and the owner played me a modest little tube amp, and I said, ‘Whoa! That’s incredible!’ So in the mid-’90s, I bought some tube gear and a better pair of speakers. After that initial purchase, my old Yamaha just sounded like it was broken compared to the new stuff,” Drummond recounts.
From there, he was hooked on the benefits improved stereo gear could allow him.
Anthony Wilson, guitarist with Diana Krall and author of several CDs on Groove Note, including Savivity and the recent Power of Nine, has likewise become a staunch proponent of better home audio.
Wilson relates his own personal journey: “I grew up listening to vinyl, and later, I recognized that, while there was something great about CDs, there was also something that didn’t sound right with digital. I knew there was a difference, that there was something more real, more dimensional to the sound of an LP. So my template for sound comes from listening to LPs as a kid. Interestingly, I don’t think kids growing up today care so much about sound quality. They listen to MP3s and iPods all the time and don’t buy LPs so they don’t have a real reference point for sound.
“Anyway, in the ’90s,” Wilson continues, “it really got to me that something was missing from CDs, so I resolved to get some audio equipment that would make my CDs sound more like an LP—I’ve always liked that warmth, as well as the warmth of tube electronics. So there was a little shop in L.A. run by a couple of high-end fanatics and they turned me onto the system I now own. It’s a Manley Stingray integrated amp (manleylabs.com) and Meadowlark Kestrel speakers (no longer made). It’s not a way-expensive system, but it just sounds right—it really sings, it’s so much more dimensional than what I was listening to,” says Wilson of his transformation into an audiophile.
For his part, Drummond’s “main rig” consists of an Audible Illusions Modulus 3A tube preamp (audibleillusions.com) and an Audio Research 150.2 amp (audioresearch.com). For CDs he utilizes an Audio Research CD-1 as a transport and a Museatex Bidat outboard DAC (no longer made) which he says notched up the sonics of his CD playback “three or four degrees.” Drummond’s LPs spin on a Basis 1400 turntable (basisaudio.com) with a Rega RB300 arm (soundorg.com). All of this electrical juice is transformed into music via Drummond’s prized Magnepan 1.6 planar speakers (magnepan.com) and a Vandersteen SW sub (vandersteen.com). “I also use a Shunyata Research Hydra AC power conditioner (shunyata.com) which has made a huge improvement in the sound. I was a bit skeptical of this thing at first, but when I heard it, it actually made an enormous change in the overall sonics,” Drummond says.
Like Jarrett, Drummond’s highly resolving home audio system allows him to hear the good, the bad and the ugly of currently available recordings, including those in which he participates. “Sometimes in the studio I’m disappointed in the sound of the drum set. Sometimes you just can’t hear what my left hand is doing, or my right foot, or my left foot—those are all integral parts of what I’m trying to do. My high-end audio system lets me hear how recordings really sound and many just aren’t that great,” laments Drummond.
If more players could listen the way Drummond, Carter, Wilson, Jarrett and others do, maybe the recording process itself would improve across the board. Drummond explains, “On my next recording as a leader, I want to have a larger role in directing the sound. I would love to have a hands-on approach to mixing, mastering, mic placement. I think it’s worth it,” says Drummond.
Wilson, who also spends a lot of time in the studio these days, is not afraid to voice his opinions at his session du jour. “When I go into the studio,” says Wilson, “I want my music to sound as good as possible, and will tell the engineer if he’s not getting good results with my guitar, ‘Hey, let’s get this sound right because it’s important to the listeners.’ I’m more watchful of that now than I used to be. I’ve sharpened my senses, my acuity to good sound, good food [and] good wine as I’ve gotten older,” Wilson declares.
Like Wilson, Drummond remains a devotee of old-fashioned vinyl playback, but also finds the good in standard “red book” CDs. “I enjoy both on their own terms. I think digital can do some things analog can’t do and vice versa,” he says.
“However, the other day I played an LP version of Dexter Gordon’s Tangerine on Prestige and it sounded so alive, it was startling how good it sounded. Sometimes vinyl sounds so good you can’t believe LPs still have so much to offer. I couldn’t survive without a turntable and I know a lot of musicians that don’t have great systems, but still think LPs sound better than CDs,” Drummond observes.
Like most other audiophiles, Drummond loves to spread the word, proselytizing the gospel of “better sound is more fun, more enjoyable.” And almost religiously, he’ll sit down with friends and other musicians to show them the way.
“Musicians know I’m into this stuff and they approach me for advice. They’ll ask, ‘I’ve got the same speakers I had when I was in college, what should I get?’ Like Steve Kuhn, for example. He had some speakers he’d owned for 30 years, and he got, I don’t know, Conrad-Johnson electronics (conradjohnson.com) and Martin Logan speakers (martinlogan.com), and he could never go back: He’s completely happy. He’s not an audiophile, but he auditioned some things and he now understands the merits of it all. And Steve Swallow recently got a new system and he just wrote me a letter and said he couldn’t be happier. You know, when they take the plunge, they realize what they’ve been missing.”
Drummond further explains his process of exposing folks to new gear. “I just sit them down and play good equipment for them and they just can’t believe the sound. That’s all it takes. And the reaction is always the same, ‘Damn, I’ve listened to that record a billion times and I never heard that before. I never knew Ray Brown’s bass, or PC’s, could sound like that!’
“But the first thing most everybody says is that the stuff is too expensive,” says Drummond. “They can’t fathom paying $1,000 for a pair of speakers because the last time they bought speakers 25-30 years ago, they were maybe $200, if they were that much. But when they finally hear it, they understand, and then realize they don’t have to spend that much money, maybe just a little bit more than those bullshit systems from the warehouse stores. It doesn’t have to be the latest esoteric gear, but just something that’s better than most mass-market gear,” Drummond surmises.
Wilson relates similar experiences sharing his knowledge with other jazzers: “Guys come over to my place and we listen, and they always say, ‘This record sounds so much better.’ Good equipment speaks for itself, and it’s not tiring to listen to. Many of my musician friends complain that listening to music is tiring, that it’s hard to listen for very long, that music is often too strident. You want a system that captures how exciting music is in its own reality, that does not flatten the sound, and that is not tiring to listen to.”
Then Wilson makes the pitch to all jazz listeners: “The nice thing about audio is there are things available at all price points. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. And I would think all jazz fans should like this level of sound because they will end up listening to more music, and it will sound more like what they heard at the Village Vanguard or at a festival.”
Wilson then goes on about what he personally gets from listening on better equipment: “I listen for truth of sound. I know what an instrument should sound like and so I like having a sense of the reality of what I know music sounds like. You don’t want a sax to sound honky, or a guitar too chimey, and you want a certain amount of grain in the human voice. With a lesser system, the sound is flattened and many of the details get lost, like the spit on a reed. I want a system that brings all that to me, like I’m in the room with the musicians.”
But as good as your system is, it is still only a reproduction of the real thing, and all audiophiles admit that fact. Drummond sums it up this way: “There’s still nothing like live music.That’s the best. But better equipment lets me get just a little closer to that.”