The Making of Whole Lotta Love

I was interested to read some studio/production stuff about the making of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. I was surprised to learn that the pre-echo of Plant’s a capella parts (‘Way down inside…’) was not a brilliant idea, but rather an artifact of print-through or cross-talk on the magnetic tape.

I noted that this was another track where Jimmy recorded the drums by placing them in a large reverberant room and miking them with essentially a stereo pair. He also did this to get the great drum sound on The Levee Song. Most engineers and producers close mike the individual drums and toy with the mix to get the sound they want. I think Page’s approach sounds better.

I was also interesting to read how Jimmy Page disfavored releasing singles, and intentionally produced songs that would be hard to cut up into singles.

The Wall Street Journal: The Making of Whole Lotta Love

Living the Dream

When I was young, I had many dreams and few achievements. Now I have many achievements and few dreams, and I wonder if I am truly the richer for it.

Member of Motown House Band

Robert Willie White, member of the Motown house band.

Many years after Bob Willie White was a member of the Motown house band, playing guitar on songs that sold tens or hundreds of millions of records, Bob and some friends were having dinner at a restaurant in LA, and on the movie ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ one of his friends related the following tale:

While the waiter was taking their order the song ‘Ive Got Sunshine’ began playing. After the waiter left, Bob White said he almost told the waiter that he was the guitarist who played those opening notes, but he just couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. His friend ruefully observed that Bob still didn’t recognize his supreme accomplishments as a musician, he still wasn’t Living the Dream…

Those words resonated with me and I have thought about Bob’s timidity many times in the years since I watched that movie. The words ‘Not Living the Dream’ became a metaphor in my mind for the notion of being successful but not feeling successful. But then there is the more difficult question: How does one address this, how does one ‘Live the Dream’? I don’t think its an invitation to boorish bragging or a sense of elitism.

Many understand the importance of respecting all people. And many know that being modest, or at least appearing modest, is an essential social skill. In addition, doesn’t a sense of failing in one’s duties have an important place in the scheme of things? Shouldn’t those who shirk their responsibilities out of laziness, or excessive self-indulgence, feel some heat? Shouldn’t they kick themselves in the butt, cowboy up, or whatever it takes, and start doing their part? Absolutely.

But what if one has a sense of unease caused by the feeling that one has come up short, and that the apparent cure for this unease is to drive one’s self harder, to take more risks, to embrace stress? What if one’s sense of insufficient success is in fact impervious to achievement, making life a difficult and narrow-minded journey with an ever-receding Shangri La just over the next hill? I take no pleasure in acknowledging that this mode of thinking is not entirely unfamiliar to me, and reflecting on a life lived this way can be a grim exercise.

So what is Living the Dream? Another ever-receding Happyland? I hope not. Surely its something that must be done in the moment if it is to be done at all. I encourage my sons to Live The Dream, to feel their success and know that at any given moment they are more than I could have ever hoped they would be. I came to this place late as a father and as a man.

I reflect a lot on Tennyson’s poem Ulysses–a warrior’s defiant howl in the face of mortality. And now I wonder: is Ulysses driven by an implacable inner master to ever greater conquests, or is he thirsting to drink in the glory of the moment, an exhilarating joy of adventure?

for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

I hope and believe it is the latter. I seek that my own journeys be embraced with a joyful and eager heart, that I in spirit may smite the sounding furrows at Ulysses side. That is The Dream.

Bringing the glory out of a Biacrown Era Hiwatt Custom 50

I recently picked up a Biacrown Era Hiwatt Custom 50 and set about fixing it up (it has a factory quality check sticker dated 8/24/1984). I replaced the electrolytic caps per my normal practice with amps over 20 years old. The Biacrown era refers to about a year after Dave Reeves, owner of Hiwatt, died. Folks were taking existing stock, and whatever they could cobble together or buy, and getting it out the door. While these amps are considered ‘real’ Hiwatts, part of the official cannon, they don’t have the collector value of late 60s, early 70s, Hiwatts that Jimmy Page or Pete Townsend played in the golden age of hard rock.

They were sold under the company name of “Hiwatt Biacrown Limited’. After a year, Biacrown went under, and various pretenders began making ‘Hiwatts’ in a sordid tale of poor quality imitations and trademark violation. Under Dave Reeves, Hiwatt used premium parts and were considered a step above the ubiquitous Marshalls in terms of quality. Not the least of these parts were the expensive Partridge brand transformers.

An amp tech who looked at the amp noted it was both noisy, in terms of 60 cycle hum, and broke up pretty early in a marshally fashion. The ‘Hiwatt’ sound is an amp putting out tons of clean, and when it finally does break up at full volume, you get the sort of growl you can hear in the first few seconds of Magic Bus from Live at Leeds.

At first I thought some sort of JCM 800 sounding Hiwatt might be nice, but I did miss the huge clean sound I got from a 70s Hiwatt I used to own and foolishly let go of. First thing, I noted that the preamp circuit had a high gain mod. I decided to restore the circuit to a lower gain circuit from the late 70s. When removing the mod, I could see, due to some circuit board traces having no solder, that the mod was installed at the factory, though the ‘OL’ designation that went with that circuit was not on the model plate.

With the mod removed the 60 cycle hum was lowered, and it did have a bit more headroom before it broke up. I still thought it sounded marshally and broke up too soon.

I tried selling the amp on Craigslist, advertising it as a dead stock Hiwatt. Seeing no interest in the unit, I got to thinking about upgrading the output transformer. This amp did not have Partridge transformers in it, but rather some of unknown origin. There is a company, Mercury Magnetics that builds premium guitar amp transformers. They got my notice some years earlier when I heard an amazing sounding class A amp that had a ‘Mercury Upgrade Kit’ installed. So, I gave them a call and told Patrick there that I was interested in getting the clean and headroom into my Biacrown. Patrick recalled that a Mercury customer had just had a hiwatt/mercury transformer shootout and one model stood above the rest in terms of headroom. I ordered one for $265 in red, and decided I would make this Hiwatt part of my permanent collection.

I got the transformer Friday and had a chance to install it today. The only delicate part of that process is that the amp has negative feedback from the output of the transformer to the driver circuitry. Two wires to to the plates of the two power tubes, and if hooked up the wrong way, the amp can feed back and destroy itself. I powered the unit up, ready to shut it off if it showed signs of feedback, but I guessed correctly and there was no further drama. While I expected some improvement in headroom, I was amazed at the transformation, so to speak, of the amp. In addition to lots of large clean, for reasons I can only speculate about, it cleaned up the 60 cycle hum to the point that I was not sure the amp was working until I plugged a guitar into it.

So, very pleased with the outcome, I left the amp on for a few hours just to make sure all was well electrically. When I checked it, I noticed that the power transformer was too hot to touch even though the amp had not been putting out any signal. A current check showed it as consuming 77 watts. I added up all of the power usage inside the amp and could only find 57 watts of power usage. Power transformers are normally very efficient, so the extra 20 watts seemed odd. An internet search revealed no good guidelines for determining whether a transformer is too hot or not. I did get a suggestion to try unplugging the tubes and seeing if it still got hot–perhaps then being a problem with the filter caps.

Well, I did that, and even disconnected the filter caps from the amp, and it still drew 45 watts just sitting there. I started thinking about the power transformer as damaged by previous abuse, and perhaps the output transformer was as well. While I can understand the scientific basis for a premium quality output transformer, passing the sound as it does, I am not quite there regarding power transformers, and rather than get another $265 transformer from Mercury, I ordered a Hammond 290GX, recommended by Hiwatt expert Mark Huss, for $108. So, in another 5 days or so, I will see how it sounds with a new power tranny.

5/27/2013–There was an error in my credit card number and the Hammond set at Mouser for a bit until we cured it. The woman there corrected my pronunciation–it is pronounced ‘mauzer’ like the german gun.

Got the new power tran installed. Lots of stuff had to be taken out of the amp to re-lay the wiring, but all went well. Had a bit of a scare. I got the primary wired up and went to measure the voltage on the output with my Fluke bench meter. The fuse blows, and then I blow another one. Really bumming, and then I realized I had the fluke test leads plugged into the ammeter and was shorting the output winding. The dc resistances of the tran are as specified, so don’t think I burned it out.

I also replace the rectifiers with uf4007–a diode that doesn’t ring quite as much when transitioning–they are only like 50 cents apiece. Amp is up and running. Sounds the same as before, with all the mercury magnetic output tran tonal improvement. The power tran runs warm, not hot like the old one did. It draws 70 watts at idle. I still can’t believe that the 60 cycle hum in this is so low that I have to turn the master almost all the way up just to hear that it is in fact hooked up. Its got a lot of clean, but it does break up when really pushed. I like the early breakup growl, but when I turn the gain up even more, it loses that agressive tone that I like. This is one for the books–took an undesirable amp and turned it into a keeper.

Well, on to the next project: Putting uf4007 diodes in and some better hardware in my jtm 100 clone. I don’t expect a tone change, just getting it tip top. It has some nos plastic diodes in it now that I don’t completely trust.

Late 1970s Yacht Rock: The Raw Power of Really Smooth Music

Excerpt from the Crosby, Stills, Nash song Southern Cross (1982):

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way.
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small.
But it’s as big as the promise – The promise of a comin’ day.

My friend, the late Steve Gursky, had worked as recording engineer on some Stephen Stills projects. Since Steve kind of knew Stills, I asked him about the meaning of the lyrics to The Southern Cross. I posited that it was maybe about some sort of spiritual feelings about being from the southern United States. Steve burst out laughing and said: “That was the name of his boat–The Southern Cross.”

Well, there you have it. Musically I was born a decade too late. The american Top 40 in 1967 contained some of the finest pop/rock ever made, while the late 1970s brought what I considered the scourge of the top 40: smooth rock, mellow rock…yacht rock. Apparently many musicians in those days took their first $20,000 record company advance, purchased a boat, and wrote songs inspired by their time upon the water.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was quite discouraging. In any case, sometime in the late 1990s, I spent countless hours in a certain internet forum liberally populated by professional recording engineers, including Gursky. Somebody, I think his handle was Spock, pointed out the hilarity of the Yacht Rock series of mocumentaries, and I checked it out, much to my delight.

I consider these to be masterpiece short stories. Each episode begins with a setup from ‘Hollywood Steve’ who becomes crazier in each subsequent episode. The video then states the problem, shows people struggling with it, and then its resolution, making lavish satirical use of film cliche.

While there is some artistic licence taken in the details, such as exaggeration of interpersonal conflict, all of the major music industry characters presented in these videos have acknowledged that the stories are to a large degree true. If you find the first video as hilarious as I did, I commend you to go on youtube, or channel101 (where they came from) and see the rest. Be sure to search for the HD versions of these masterpieces. Also, be warned, ample use of the vernacular (coarse language).

In the first episode, we find Michael McDonald needs to write a hit song pronto, or he will get kicked out of the Doobie Brothers. In the second video, we see the Back Alley Songwriting Duel of 1978 which leads to tragedy for an advocate of smooth rock, but the discovery of a new smooth musician. And now, taking a iconic quote from one of the videos, I present to you the “raw power of really smooth music.”

Aint No Grave

The first time I heard this on the car radio, it really put a hook in me. I did some reading and found that when Johnny Cash was near the end of his life, producer Rick Ruben set him up with a microphone in a living room sort of setting and recorded Cash, later adding minimal accompaniment. This traditional song from the Southern United States is a reflection on Judgement Day as described in the biblical Apocalypse of John, where the righteous, or saved, physically rise up from their graves in response to the angel Gabriel blowing his trumpet.

A close listen will reveal that Led Zeppelin, as they were wont to do, used the idea and some of the lyric as the basis for their anthem “In My Time of Dying”–which also put a hook in me the first time I heard Zeppelin play it at the Met Center in 1975.

I think one of Cash’s strengths as a singer was an honesty in his delivery, and that honesty powers this performance.

An ageless Torch Song from a young woman

When Jewel was dumped by the young man who took his coat off and stood in the rain, she doubtless felt it was a horrible low point in her life.  She couldn’t have known how that poignant moment, later immortalized in song, would transform her life into stardom–when at the age of 21, she entered a studio and recorded one of the finest Torch Songs of all time, Foolish Games.

Growing up in Alaska in a house without indoor plumbing, and later impoverished and living in a van while she travelled around earning money with street performances, she certainly paid her dues by the time she recorded her multi-platinum 1995 debut album Pieces of You. Foolish Games was released from it as a single in 1997, reached #2 on the charts, and remained on the charts for what was at the time a record 65 weeks.

Back in the day, I spent a non-trivial amount of time discussing the theory of pop music, with the late recording engineer/producer Steve Gurskey, and his view was that the singer and the song were the two most important elements in a great song–and this is a perfect exemplar of Steve’s view. Close miked for intimacy, with a spartan arrangement that highlights Jewel’s voice, the result is spellbinding. While youtube provides many nice live performances, I feel the studio version is the masterpiece and will feature that.