Bruce's Blog

a handful of dimes and a jukebox

Desmond is a speaker: a pair of them, in fact.  And they have been living with me for a month or so now.  The Desmonds were built by Ars Harmonia, also known as Bruce Pea.  Bruce is a guy with whom I attended to high school, and we reconnected a few years ago via Facebook.

Facebook, it almost goes without saying, is a strange beast, and yet, it has opened my eyes to the fact that there were people in high school with whom I had something in common than I didn’t realize at the time;  a love of music. There’s the obvious stuff, like, oh…, The Beatles, for example.  It turns out that I wasn’t the only kid in Vincennes, Indiana who loved The Beatles. Imagine!

When I was about 15 (~1971), I became quite interested in Jazz.  My little Hoosier town didn’t have a dedicated record store.  I remember buying the Beatles’ “Yesterday and Today” album at the Singer sewing machine store.  As soon as I could drive, most weekend days (and most of my money) were spent in bigger cities in record stores, reading the liner notes, figuring out who the side men were on the record, who wrote the songs, who did the arrangements, who played what solo and so forth.  I’ve played piano most of my life and after high school, I attended Berklee College of Music, well known for it’s unique place in Jazz education, and played professionally for decades.

But anyway, many years later, Facebook came along, and I started reconnecting with folks like Bruce.  Bruce had been following my blog, and seemed especially interested in my Cheese of the Week series. 🙂

Desmonds in the box

Desmonds in the box

I didn’t know in high school that Bruce was a music fan.  And not only that, he was actually into building speakers. So it was a real surprise when I saw him announce Desmond on Facebook.  Desmond is named after Paul Desmond, the great alto saxophonist, who most famously played with The Dave Brubeck Quartet.  Desmond’s clean, light tone epitomized the 50’s Playboy Jazz sound.  Just hearing him makes me think of martinis, bachelor pads and swinging days of which I was too young to take part in.

For the last…oh, 20 years or so, I’ve been living with large panels; Maggies for quite a while, and for the last 10 or 12 years, some Martin Logans.  A six-foot tall speaker pushes a lot of air and creates quite an landscape of sound. Desmond is a little guy, and it’s no small order to ask him to compare to that. Desmond (the speaker, not the alto player) doesn’t handle everything well.  As Bruce told me, it’s not a party speaker if your idea of a party is music at a volume to get arrested by. Well, ok, I’ve played in my share of bands where the cops were called because of the volume, but that’s another story. 😉 Anyway, what Desmond does well, he does brilliantly.

So I told Bruce that I’d write about my reactions to Desmond on my blog.  So in honor of his namesake, the first listening experience I’ll write about is an uber-classic:  The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out” LP.  I have mono and stereo originals (the record collector geek in me is forced to say that), but for this session I listened to a very special pressing:  The Classic Records 45 Series, pressed on 4 one-sided discs at 45 rpm.  Like audio tape, where the faster the tape speed, the higher fidelity, a 45 record can have much higher fidelity.  So why did those 45s you collected as a kid sound like crap?  Usually because they were pressed on crappy vinyl with a stamper printing 100,000 of them instead of the 5,000 it was designed to do.

The Desmonds really like this record a lot.  The sound is big, rich and full without being over-bearing.  The old Columbia studio where this was recorded had an amazing sound, and the Desmonds recreate that wonderfully.  The sound landscape on “Time Out” has a lot going on.  Joe Morello’s subtle drumming is an easily overlooked, but critical piece of the Quartet’s sound, and his solo on “Take Five” is a masterpiece.  It sounds amazing on the Desmonds, with the subtle backdrop of Eugene Wright’s great bass and Brubeck’s piano.   And true to their name, Paul Desmond’s alto sounds brilliant, cool and creamy.  Hard to believe that just a little 3.5″ driver can push out so much sound.  Great stuff.

Paul Desmond with Brubeck in the studio

Paul Desmond with Brubeck in the studio

The Desmonds image very well, with proper speaker set-up.  What does “image” mean?  It means that a well recorded record played back on a good system with properly placed speakers will create an audio “picture”.  It’s a lot more than just “the piano is on the right and the sax is on the left”.  You can hear the placement of the instruments in space as if each musician is in front of you.  The brain makes sense out of a lot of small, subtle audio clues.  For example, your ears detect that the echo from the drums against the wall is different from the echo of the sax, so your brain knows that the drummer is closer to the back wall.  So a good audio picture can give you instrument placement not only side-to-side, but also back-to-front.

In the 70’s when huge multi-track systems came into being, engineers started close miking everything (placing a microphone so close to the instrument that the microphone only picks up the sound of the instrument, and omits the sound of the room) and then adding reverb later in the mix.  The result was a clean but sterile sound that doesn’t make sense on playback.  It’s confusing to the ear because the echoes are illogical.  They don’t work together to build a good audio picture.  It might sound cool on headphones, but it’s not necessarily good sound.

Anyway, the Desmonds image very nicely.

Oh — I haven’t talked about how pretty the speakers are. They really are beautiful.  I think Bruce said it takes 11 or 12 days to make a pair.  These are artisan speakers.  As nice as they look in pictures, it really doesn’t do them justice.  You have to see these things to fully appreciate them.

Desmond unwrapped

Desmond unwrapped

The Kenny Drew album “Undercurrent” (Blue Note BST 84059) is a great LP, both in sound and musicianship.  You take musicians like Drew, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes, put them in Rudy Van Gelder’s parents’ front room (where his initial studio was) with Rudy engineering, and you’re going to have a great LP.  But this one is especially special and The Desmonds love it.

Linda Ronstadt’s wonderful “What’s New” LP (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-158) sounds drop dead gorgeous through the Desmonds. The walking bass has just the right amount of oomph and the strings are creamy, and not your low-fat cream either. They are rich and luxurious.  The horns are dramatic without being piercing.  And of course Ronstadt’s voice was extraordinary.  So sad about the Parkinson’s.  “I miss it everyday”, she says about singing. Peter Asher (brother of actress Jane Asher and also Peter from Peter & Gordon) did a wonderful job on the production.

I’m a little more mixed on the great John Mayall “Blues Breakers” album (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-183) with Eric Clapton, John McVie and Hughie Flint, also know as “The Beano Album” because of the comic that Eric was reading on the cover.  They handle Eric’s over-the-top Marshall combo amp distortion like a champ, but I wish for a little more bass oomph to hear McVie properly.  John McVie who went to play in Fleetwood Mac (named for Mick Fleetwood on drums and McVie on bass) after being fired from Mayall’s band. And I hear that Clapton fellow went on to play in some other bands and stuff.

McGuinness Flint

Hughie Flint is a jazz drummer whose style fit very well with Mayall.  He went on to start another one of my favorite bands, McGuinness Flint with Tom McGuinness (from Manfred Mann), and the great Bennie Gallagher and Graham Lyle, who as Gallagher and Lyle did some very beautiful (and very successful) work. G & L also played for a while with Ronnie Lane.

McGuinness Flint were such an amazing ensemble of great musicians.  Hugh Flint told me that he and Tom McGuinness were inspired by The Band to start McGuinness Flint.  Great songs, great musicianship.  The Desmonds perform very well with their largely acoustic sound.  The vocals on “Mister Mister” are so great, and the arrangement is wonderful.  I never noticed how nicely this record was recorded.  “Heritage” is so beautiful.  Great drumming from Hugh on “I’m Letting You Know”.  Those horns are sweet on that tune. (McGuinness Flint, Capitol SMAS-625).

Small Faces -  Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake

Speaking of Ronnie Lane, I’m a huge fan of Ronnie, who played bass, sang and wrote a lot of stuff with the great Steve Marriott in the Small Faces (later just The Faces when the addition of Rod Stewart caused them to no longer be short enough to call themselves Small Faces).

The Small Faces’ “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” is one of those albums that’s hard to find a truly clean copy of, I think because of the condition most listeners were in by the time they got round to playing this record.  Same thing for original Hendrix records.  I’ve got four copies:  an original US, an original UK stereo, an original UK mono, and a 90’s audiophile reissue.  Funny, I haven’t listened to the reissue since I got it because at the time I wasn’t very impressed.  But at that time, I didn’t do a listening to all of the other pressings at the same time.  Now that I hear it side by side, it sounds really good.  And Ronnie Lane’s bass sounds great on the Desmonds in “Long Ago And Worlds Apart”.

Fleetwood Mac: The Pious Bird of Good Omen

Fleetwood Mac: The Pious Bird of Good Omen

In high school one of my favorite albums was “The Pious Bird of Great Omen” by Fleetwood Mac (Blue Horizon S7-63215).  It was a collection of tunes from earlier albums and singles. “Albatross” sounds really, really nice on the Desmonds.  The guitar riffs are haunting.

The original “Black Magic Woman” was a showcase for everyone in the band; Peter Green obviously, but Mick Fleetwood is pretty darn amazing here.  You die for a drummer to hit those pagan skins to take you back into a phrase like Mick does in Black Magic Woman.

The Desmonds are very bright, especially after living with panels for such a long time.  Peter Green’s stinging solos in the album “The Biggest Thing Since Colossus” featuring Otis Spann are almost piercing on The Desmonds.   (The Biggest Thing Since Colossus – Otis Spann – Blue Horizon BH 4802)

John McVie, who played on the Mayall record I was mentioning earlier, had been Peter Green’s original choice for the bass player, but had a steady gig with Mayall and didn’t want to risk going with a new band, so Fleetwood Mac’s debut was with Bob Brunning on bass.  Bob was ok, but McVie and Fleetwood together were arguably one of the best rhythm sections ever.

Pentangle: Cruel Sister

Pentangle: Cruel Sister

I have a real passion for the British group Pentangle, and the playing of Bert Jansch in particular.  The interplay of musicians and musicianship in that band is incredible. Danny Thompson on bass and Terry Cox on drums. Now *there’s* a formidable rhythm section! And of course the amazing interplay between Jansch and John Renbourn is just incredible. Even without Jacqui McShee’s haunting-to-say-the-least vocals, they would have been great, but her vocal solo “When I Was In My Prime” always just puts me away. The album Cruel Sister is one of my favorites, and I’ve listened to it zillions of times, but I’m hearing things via The Desmonds that I’ve never really heard before. The groovy distorted electric solo in John Renbourn’s Lord Frankin sounds extra special.

I’ve got an original UK pressing on Transatlantic (TRA 228), and also an original US white label promo on Reprise (RS 6430), but I’ve never compared them back to back to see which one sounds better. To my surprise, the WLP really outshines the Transatlatic one. The WLP images shockingly well. And The Desmonds are doing amazing things, bringing out the wonderful subtle percussion bits without any sense of being…brittle or harsh.

I’m still stunned by the way the whole band interacts on the song “Cruel Sister”, and The Desmonds handle the low bass and percussion surprisingly well for such a small speaker.  My buddy Dave Tegelaar and I were going for a Pentangle thing in our cover of Strawberry Fields Forever. The mix sounds nice on the Desmonds if you can forgive my bloody awful John Lennon wannabe singing, but Dave’s great guitar work makes up for it.

So if this intrigues you at all, I suggest you contact Bruce via his Ars Harmonia page. He’s a super nice guy. And you too can experience Life With Desmond!

‘Till the next listening session…

Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond

 

Categories: Life With Desmond

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