This is the first of a two part
work. It recounts the opportunity I had to sit in on a live
session at Mapleshade studios, and reveals much as to why the
Mapleshade sound is so unique. Part two, following hereafter,
is the summation of a four hour taped interview with Mapleshade's
founder and recording engineer, Pierre Sprey. It contains some
rather unorthodox views which may start you thinking about the
way recordings are made! But for now, let's take a look at what
goes on in the mansion recording studio known as Mapleshade.
Background To A Journey
My first exposure to Mapleshade products came while I was with
the previously mentioned high end audio store in central Pennsylvania
in early 1993. One of the first discs I auditioned from this label
was a thing called Jazznost. It was the first collaboration
of a fine Soviet Union horn section and an outstanding American
rhythm section led by pianist Walter Davis, Jr., and was recorded
by Pierre Sprey and Mapleshade in May of 1989.
I was overwhelmed by both
the truly spontaneous feel of the performance and the sense of
ease of the recording. One cut in particular, Water Lily,
starts off with a saxophone solo which floats in space and whose
every note excites the strings of the grand piano which is near
by. It is a very haunting recording, and represents, to this listener
anyway, some of the best of what the digital recording format
has to offer.
I had contacted Pierre near
the end of last year and made known my desire to learn more about
both him and his label. He was very receptive and sent me the
press kit I had requested. I mentioned during our initial conversation
that I had not kept up with his catalog since about 1994. To my
surprise and considerable enjoyment, a box arrived on my door
step with not only the press kit but six recent releases!
I was again off on an exploration.
These new discs contained a wide range of music: from re-workings
of standards by both fine newcomers and old hands, to some very
unusual performances by some unexpected combos. The music was
exhilarating and the recordings themselves were unbelievably realistic
and approachable. The nuances and subtleties of the performance
were transited, along with the emotion and "vibe". I had only
experienced this level of involvement from my beloved vinyl, and
then only with some very precious recordings.
Of the six discs I received,
Norris Turney's Big Sweet N' Blue, Sweetman's
Austin Backalley Blue, Hamiet Bluiett's Bluiett's
Barbeque Band, Drink Small's Electric Blues Doctor
Live!, Ben Andrews and the Blue Rider Trio's Preachin'
The Blues and A la Carte Brass & Percussion's Boogeyin'!,
all but one, in my opinion, are absolute must-haves, even if you're
not the biggest blues fan in the world! The last one I mentioned,
from A la Carte Brass & Percussion, although truly well recorded,
just doesn't get it for me musically (It may for you, so give
it an audition. Don't pass on it just because it doesn't whet
But the others, in particular
the Norris Turney, the Hamiet Bluiett and the Sweetman, are both
sonic and musical nirvana. I have never heard saxophones sound
this real, both in terms of timbre and their signature "bite"!
Cymbals are captured even more pristinely than in Pierre's earlier
work, allowing you to pick up such subtleties as circular motions
applied with brushes! This newer set of recordings offers even
more of the "thereness", the original acoustic of the environment,
than the earlier offerings had revealed. Wow!
And, can you say "jazz legends"?
Norris Turney played with Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and John
Coltrane, to drop just a few names. The Ellington gig started
out as a two week stint for an ailing Johnny Hodges, and turned
into a four year, eight album career. Playing with Norris on the
album is Jimmy Cobb, the drummer for all the way-cool Miles Davis
sets like Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. Pierre
has the enviable job of recording some of the greatest names ever
associated with blues and jazz.
This was like the first time
I had driven a Porsche 911! Sheer unbridled exhilaration!
In case you are unfamiliar
with Mapleshade's work, their watchwords, which are printed on
just about every one of the new releases are "Music without compromise."
This is best embodied by the
tee shirts which Pierre had made up which emphatically states
"NO mixing board, NO filtering, NO compression, NO equalization,
NO reverb, NO noise reduction, NO multi-tracking and NO overdubbing.
Nothing but the excitement of Live Music". The liner notes also
boast "Mastered live to two track analog tape at 15 ips, 18-42,000
Hz (+/-3 db). Digitized on a custom A/D converter at 5,645 K samples
per second. Minimum-length cabling. Omega Mikro interconnects;
microphone cables by Audioquest and Mapleshade." Minimalism survives
no make that "thrives!" in Pierre's work.
I simply had to make a visit
and find out what made Mapleshade so unique. But how? I couldn't
just call and say I was a big fan. That wouldn't get me in the
door. I had to have a real plan.
I thought about it a while,
and then the obviousness of the situation hit me! I could get
my Editor to assign a piece on the Mapleshade label for Positive
Feedback. Yeah, that's the ticket! E-mail was sent, facsimilies
transmitted and phone calls made. It only took a couple of days
and it was all arranged. I love it when a plan comes together!
On The Road Again...
The day chosen for the first of my several visits came on a glorious
day in early February with the sun shining and the temperature
in the high 50's. The trip itself was relaxing and calming, with
Mapleshade recordings in the Clarion in-dash player the entire
way! Research, you know? It took just slightly over an hour to
make the journey as it is barely sixty miles from my home in southern
I found the entrance to the
driveway with no difficulty at all and marveled at how many times
I had passed by with no clue as to what lay so near. The house
and its grounds are about three tenths of a mile off Route 301,
known locally as Crain Highway, just south east of Upper Marlboro,
Maryland. Pierre had said the dirt road in was rutted and eroded.
He wasn't kidding! It was dotted with deep, wide puddles and the
foliage grew quite close to the passage way itself. You would
not be likely to travel down this path without purpose. It certainly
served to keep unwanted and uninvited visitors from driving down
the road simply to see what was at its end! And I'm sure that
the UPS driver, who stops every day to pick up outgoing packages,
LOVES this stop.
The Mansion itself is a large,
white pillared, two story home with an enormous brick stairway
leading up to the main entrance. Looking as if it could stand
a coat of paint, it was quite stately nonetheless. I knocked,
but somehow sensed that I should just go on in.
Once inside, I was met by
Rick Hallock, Mapleshade's Director of Marketing. This entry hall
is quite large with ten foot high ceilings and though it leads
both into the rest of the house and also up a staircase to the
upper floors, is part of the studio area itself. Off to the left,
through a big sliding double door portal, was another larger room.
Obviously the largest of the downstairs rooms, it comprises the
rest of the studio and sports acoustic foam attached to the walls
and corners to tame reflections. In the middle of this larger
room was a glorious old grand piano, a fully restored Steinway
Model O. I could also make out some wooden reflector panels, an
array of PZM microphones and Fender and Ampeg amplifiers.
I moved through the entry
hall and into the living room where Pierre met me with a warm
smile and a friendly handshake. In this living room at the time
were several other day people to Mapleshade and the days recording.
First was Larry Willis, Mapleshade's Music Director.
Larry has a very rich and
expansive history, having played piano or keyboards on over 300
albums and having worked with some of the greatest names in the
business! He has played with Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Stan
Getz, the Blues Brothers, Jackie McLean, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford
Jordan, Miles Davis, Carmen McRae and Blood, Sweat and Tears,
again, to drop just a few names. He is a 1992 and 1995 Grammy
nominee, has been featured on many Mapleshade productions and
is a remarkable man, as shall be seen.
Next, I met the artist who
would be making his first recording here, or anywhere else for
that matter, Mark Silent Bear. Mark would be joined later
in the day by the percussionist for this work, Kahlil Bell.
It seems that Larry had heard the two of them in a club in New
York and was impressed enough to ask them to record a session
here at Mapleshade, with Larry as producer.
The living room also holds
the house playback system. A pair of modified (like everything
of Pierre's, as you will soon learn) Martin Logan CLS II's, with
a leaf tweeter bolted to the top front center of the frame, were
parked along side two seven and a half foot tall cylindrical subwoofer
columns from Rohrer. There was a large black amplifier off to
the side by the fireplace with only the words "the magic" stenciled
in white on the front.
In the connecting doorway
itself resides a small white table. Upon that table are Pierre's
own hand built microphone pre-amps (remember, he doesn't use a
mixer), which like nearly everything else in the chain is battery
powered, and whose outputs feed directly into the Sony 10" reel
tape deck. They are the meat of a nice vibration/resonance control
sandwich. A lead brick resting on three tip toes provides the
base for the pre-amp, with another three tip toes toped by another
lead brick poised on top of the pre-amp.
Just to the right of that,
now actually in the living room and out of the studio doorway,
rests the Sony TC-880 open reel deck. That's right, 15 inch per
second analog tape! Pierre is quick to mention that very little
of it is still stock. Lots of rewiring and component changes have
been made. He points to the changed tape path and notes that the
cover has been removed to avoid unwanted resonance. He pointed
out numerous slivers of lead which have been jammed into every
little crevice and opening in the head block, as well as throughout
the rest of the case and mechanisms, to assure no unwanted resonance.
The unit, now more properly damped, weighs over 120 pounds!
And he still isn't done tweaking
this deck! He plans to remove all but the final vestige of A/C.
Except for the motors which drive the tape take-up spool and capstan,
the entire audio circuit will soon be de-coupled from A/C and
fully D/C powered.
Pierre used to lug his creation
with him to New York when he did his mastering with Bob Katz at
Digital Domain. He simply could not find anything there which
sounded anywhere nearly as pleasing as his modified unit. He now
produces his masters with a little studio in Fairfax, Virginia
since Bob has moved his mastering plant to Florida.
"I have to work with
small studios. The big ones won't shut anything off"! He is of
course referring to things like large appliances and computers
which spike, surge and generally grunge up the electricity supply
during recording, mastering and playback. I myself have a switch
on my refrigerator and shut off my furnace/air conditioning for
similar reasons when critically listening or reviewing. Pierre
continued, "The man and his wife think I'm a nutcase, but it's
good for their reputation (having Mapleshade master there), so
they tolerate it." He did mention they got pretty irate the first
few times because they forgot to turn the refrigerator back on.
But I assured him they should have only made that mistake once
just like me!
Pierre then took me back into
the studio area. Mark was getting ready to try one of the Fender
guitar amps that Pierre had modified. No, the tweaking doesn't
stop with the recording equipment, but carries over to the instruments
and all other electronics.
The Fender Pro Reverb guitar
amplifier Mark is playing through catches my ear. Wow! This thing
sounds great. Lush and warm but not muddled or loose at all. Pierre
smiles as he catches my reaction. "You like that? We've replaced
the two 12' drivers and added our Mapleshade/InSound planar speaker
cables. Then we spent a tremendous amount of time tuning it. We
spent hours with it, tuning and tuning. We first thought we would
just by-pass all the capacitors, you know? But it got that real
"hi-fi" sound, not very instrumental. So we went back and listened
at each change. It was tedious hard work." Yeah, but was it ever
worth it. What a magnificent sound!
I asked about his Pressure
Zone Microphone's, or PZM's. There was one real cool looking stereo
rig over in front of the piano. He said that he had made some
real serious changes to the standard Crown mikes. He has pitched
all the Crown drive electronics and replaced them with battery
driven versions of his own development. Then to top it off, the
units are mounted on four lead feet to their plexi panels.
Cabling throughout the studio
is all of his and Ron Bauman's creation and assembly. Some of
his cables are only a few ten thousandth of an inch in diameter!
Most of his cables are insulated by extremely thin polypropylene
sleeves, but he also uses active cables as well. Cables with batteries
to bias the shields to reject RF and EMI. As a matter of fact,
the coat and hat tree standing in the entry hall holds silent
testament to some of his cable designs. Numerous unused cables,
mostly consisting of the very flat variety, hang loosely over
the rungs. His minimalism runs to his cabling length as well.
Not one of his mike feeds is over 15 feet long!
"I could have built
a sound booth right here," as he gestures to where his current
pre amps and deck reside. "But, then I would have to use long
cables to go up and over the walls and down into the booth. I
couldn't take the phones off for a live reference to the master
either, I'd have to use some kind of monitoring system. No, this
is much better!"
What a concept! It truly is
unique and at the same time admirable. I was able to sit with
him as he worked during some of the session, and he is absolutely
right. Why would you use any electro-mechanical reference system
when you had the music just a few feet away? Why would you dilute
the process with any more wire length than you actually needed?
About this time, Mark encountered
a problem with the pedals on the phase shifter he was planning
on using with his guitar for one of tonight's tracks. His feet
were simply too big! No problem, Pierre stepped outside and cut
some pieces of wood and attached them to the pedals with double
sided tape so they spread out wider due to their increased length.
"How's that Mark?"
"Great, man" was his
Mark and Kahlil disappeared
into the kitchen with Larry. I was told they were going to work
on some arrangements for the bassist and backing vocalists. I
wandered in, trying to be unobtrusive, but anxious to see how
this worked. Larry was telling basket-ball stories and demonstrating
wildly in the small space. Both of the young musicians were laughing
with him and seemed quite taken with him.
Larry is an honors graduate
from the Manhattan School of Music who can compose and transcribe
music upon hearing it only once. Pierre told me later that his
role as a sensitive producer and arranger for many of the young
talents who record here is one of the things which have gained
him such tremendous respect. He offers quiet encouragement and
is seemingly selfless with young artists. He was quite a catalyst
throughout my experiences that afternoon and evening. After a
short time, they moved back to the studio to try some of the arrangements
and get a feel for each other. Larry has, after all, never played
with them before, and they want to work together a bit before
Just after they had exited
the kitchen, Pierre walked in. "Are you hungry?" was his question
to me. Yes, as a matter of fact, I could eat, if it wouldn't be
any trouble. He assured me he had prepared LOTS of food for the
days events, and that it would be no trouble at all. As he prepared
a plate of spiced chicken, Basmati rice and spinach with lemon
for me, I asked why he had a little cheesy Sony boom box in his
He recounted a tale about
going to a big chain store to pick out something for this room
and listening to all the boxes available up to $600. He settled
on this one for $109. He found out, as most of us who have been
in the consumer electronics industry already know, that primarily
all he got as he moved up in price were features and gizmos that
usually degrade the sound quality. He even suggested that in the
near field this thing sounded quite good. After having positioned
myself accordingly I can tell you he was right!
As I started on my meal, he
excused himself to take care of any one of a hundred things he
needed to prepare before tonight's recording. I enjoyed my meal
quietly, with no one else in the kitchen. Tasty!
After my meal, I headed back
into the studio to find Larry at the piano and Mark and Kahlil
starting to run through some of the songs on tonight's agenda.
Pierre now had a sparkle about him and was busily positioning
mikes and taping wires up here and there. To walls, to mike booms,
even propping them up on wood blocks, all presumably to keep them
off of the floor. Air is the best dielectric!
The bassist for tonight's
session, Steve Novosel, arrives with his enormous upright
bass. Steve has played on a number of Mapleshade projects and
is well known in the jazz scene around the DC area. He teaches
privately and has worked with jazz masters like Roland Kirk and
Al Gray. For him, our studio Maestro has constructed a special
This Bass platform is fashioned
from a 5 foot square piece of plywood which rests on tip toes.
It curiously has a small v made from thin strips of plywood and
attached to its top near the front right corner. The purpose of
this v is to keep the point of the double bass at just the correct
spot for the resonant quality of the bass and the platform itself!
During this time, Larry has
transcribed some of the music for Steve. As Steve and Mark have
also never worked together before, Steve wants to see what they
are doing. Kahlil suggested that they just go through the work
several times, as Mark's work is a bit difficult for an accompanist
because of his unusual use of time and tempo changes, many of
which are improvised. All the while they are exchanging ideas
and phrases laden with words like space, color, flavor, nakedness,
timber. After every exchange, the interaction becomes more whole.
After a few runs Kahlil says they should stop, they need to preserve
some of their spontaneity. They don't want to overwork the piece.
They begin to rehearse another
piece they will try to record that night now that the backing
vocalists, Nizam Smith and Ester Williams, have
arrived. Ester has formed a vocal group called "Metafour" which
highlights, you guessed it, four voices and both have done sessions
here before. They work with Mark on the subtleties for a tune
called "Seven Arrows." For about an hour, they work back and forth,
first with Mark explaining and demonstrating what he has in mind
and eventually evolving to Nizam and Ester contributing their
own suggestions, much to Marks approval.
Someone has taped a sign to
the outside of the front door which simply reads, "RECORDING IN
PROGRESS, DO NOT DISTURB." It is now 8:00 p.m. and they feel they
have the right energy to cut "Seven Arrows." I positioned myself
in a chair just about three feet to Mark's left, and in front
of the main door to the Mansion. They experience a host of false
starts, followed by lots of discussion as they try to decide just
where the vocals should come in. Perhaps more importantly, they
question what happened to the vibe they all had just minutes ago
during the rehearsals. Kahlil finally identifies it as something
in Marks timing and they are ready to try again. Mark makes his
adjustments and they roll tape.
Although everyone is apparently
okay with this first take, they decide to do a second one while
they are all still in the groove. Looking to Pierre, he fires
up the Sony, points into the room (remember, he is sitting about
three feet behind Kahlil at his recording position) and says once
again, "It's all yours."
This second take gels. Everyone
is smiling when they finish because they all felt it. Pierre lightly
slaps Kahlil on the back and says, "You played your ass off on
It is 8:55 and everyone takes
a break to listen to the second take on Pierre's Stax headphones.
The switch over to use the living room system is too time consuming
when they are trying to record. But the consensus is unanimous,
take two is the one they will release.
By 9:30 everyone is back at
their places for the next song, When the Clown Begins to Sing.
This one is a little harder to get going. There is both a timing
problem and a noise problem as Steve has to get rid of his bow
after the comparatively quiet opening of the track in preparation
to go back to finger work.
The first take, the bow lands
on the floor with a very resounding crack. Over the next three
or four takes, Steve is more quiet, but the extra time he spends
to keep the bow from making any noise holds up his timing. Finally
Pierre says he will get a table and a towel.
With one problem solved, the
tune wasn't ready to be immortalized just yet. More false starts
as the entrance of Marks vocals don't coincide with the rest of
the ensemble. They finally agree to have Larry do a silent count,
so it won't be heard on the tape, so everyone has the right cue
and can start in time. It works! This first take, though, is a
Pierre suggests to Kahlil
that he should strike his congas just a little more softly for
two reasons. Firstly, so they don't overload the mike, thereby
allowing him to capture more of their unique skin sound. Secondly,
this will allow him to turn up the gain to record all the percussion
a little hotter and get more of it's signature on tape. Kahlil
agrees this makes sense.
The second take is better,
but nearly to the man the musicians are all shaking their heads.
They start it a third time and this one is very different! Kahlil
has picked up his percussion work, sounding much more lively than
during the first two attempts. His new found energy is infectious
to the entire ensemble and the energy level in this third cut
soars. I can't keep my feet still during this third take. Everybody
in the living room behind Pierre is smiling. Pierre looks at me
and gives me a wink and just the briefest of thumbs up indicating
that he too knows they have nailed this tune. I know we have a
Now 10:35, this break is for
more than just a playback. Nizam and Ester have to call it a night.
They will be back tomorrow evening for work on several other cuts.
They both take time to hear the playback and both are smiling.
The rest of the musicians, especially Mark, makes a bee line for
the kitchen. They are hungry! So a long time out ensues while
our troop eats and generally refreshes themselves.
During this break there is
lots of community and interaction among all present. Myrrh (she
has a last name but doesn't care to use it), who handles Mapleshade's
radio promotions, has arrived and is chatting with Steve's girlfriend.
Pierre is busy fixing plates of food, pouring wine and just generally
making sure everyone is accommodated. Conversation is the mode
of the moment. This is a very relaxed and social time for the
entire household, with many of the guests, due to the lateness
of the hour, offering their good byes to everyone as they slowly
head toward the door.
Finally, with Kahlil finished
eating and grumbling that everybody is just sitting around picking
at food and not doing anything productive, they agree to get back
to the task at hand.
It is now shortly after midnight,
and with everyone gone but Larry, Pierre, Mark, Kahlil and myself,
the lights are turned out in the studio area. Only a few lights
in the living room are left on. Mark had told me just before he
had taken his position back in the studio that this piece was
going to be something more traditional, more spiritual. Hum, what
could that mean?
Mark began to burn some sage
and got out an instrument made specifically for him which he had
been showing off proudly when I first arrived. It was a ceremonial
drum, made from a light colored octagonal wooden frame about a
foot across and four or five inches deep, covered with a stretched
elk skin. It was decorated in native American fashion and had
a very unique timbre.
This third work was entirely
improvisational. Mark began chanting while tolling his drum. Kahlil
accompanied with all his percussion instruments from both side
tables and the floor. This was an unusual piece, more of a native
American ceremony or rite than a song.
The synergy between the two
musicians was astounding! Mark's chanting took on an eerie air,
all the while pounding his drum to differing rhythms and at different
intensities. His voice alternately soared and plummeted again,
taking on an almost magical, lyrical quality. Kahlil seemed to
feed off of this energy and complimented it with his own driving
rhythm, offering reinforcing feedback which in turn drove Mark
even further into his trance-like performance. Wow, this was something
special! This went on for about 15 minutes. It was almost as if
we were witnessing some religious ceremony or shamanistic ritual.
No one moved; we were all seemingly hypnotized by this mystical
and profound performance. When the two had obviously reached a
conclusion and the chanting and drumming had ceased, Pierre just
shut off the deck and turned to me with this incredulous look
on his face.
One thing was obvious. We
were all moved by the effort. Larry was the first to speak and
he was only able to manage that, without a doubt, the "vibe" was
definitely there. Mark asked Pierre how long it had run. When
he found out, he almost apologetically suggested that perhaps
the piece could be edited down. Both Pierre and Larry were quick
to insist that this piece was untouchable, they didn't care how
long it had run! No, it should stand exactly as recorded!
It was not a tad after 1:00
a.m. I had been there over twelve hours and still had a road trip
ahead of me. I was emotionally wrung out from the days performance
and physically burnt out from the sheer length of my day. I wanted
to stay because I knew the session wasn't anywhere near over,
and that likely, the best was still to come. But prudence and
weariness took command. I thanked Pierre and Larry for their unbelievable
hospitality, Mark and Kahlil for a unique and exhilarating experience,
and then excused myself into the night air. What a day!
On the drive home, several
things began to congeal as I looked back over the day's visit.
The most obvious of which was that of Pierre's part in all this.
He appears to be more of a nurturing parent, providing support,
encouragement and a comfortable set of circumstance for the artists,
rather than "just" a recording engineer employed to simply capture
whatever comes out during the session. His part in developing
the mood and participating in the process took a front seat to
just getting the master. He was constantly taking time to make
sure that everything the artists needed or wanted was accommodated.
I honestly cannot recall him saying no to any request the entire
The other significant attribute
which surfaced, that of the prevailing air of casualness, of no
pressing time table or deadlines, of no urgency to be "on" right
now, was obviously most conducive to the flow of creativity and
the high level of interaction I had witnessed among the artists.
The natural talent of creativity just flowed when it was ready;
it wasn't cramped, constrained or fettered by a time table and
the need to "produce" on demand.
These would appear to be the
major contributing factors to what I had described earlier as
the ability these recordings have to present a sense of accessibility
and ease. The artists were obviously under no pressure to get
something on tape, so they were able to wait until it just felt
right, and to then cut some very special music. And it comes across
in Spades on the recordings!
It is my belief that in the
not too distant future, based upon both their consistent superior
sonic qualities and the remarkable caliber of the musicians and
subsequent musical performances, the body of work recorded by
Pierre at Mapleshade will be looked upon as the embodiment of
contemporary recorded blues and jazz. In essence, Mapleshade is
an evolving body of reference recordings.
When I asked for this feature,
I told my wizened editor that my goal was to be able to ascertain
just what made Mapleshade recordings so unique. I believe I can
sum up that quality in one word. PASSION.
There is a passion at Mapleshade,
from it's founder all the way on down the line, to record real,
vibrant, human music. A hunger to capture all of the emotion present
during that event. A desire to not dilute that wondrous sound
and emotion by utilizing only the most articulate equipment and
ancillaries that can be had, fabricated or modified as the case
may be; and to that end, incorporating the fewest of those components
absolutely necessary to capture and present wonderful music from
splendid artists which regular labels would not release in the
first place, and if they should, would only do so given the right
to contaminate the work with all their "wisdom" to the point of
unrecognizability. Pierre records music for one reason, and one
reason only! A deep love of music and a driving desire to communicate
its emotion with any who care to listen!
In Part One of this article, I described
my experiences and impressions of what went on during a recording
session at Mapleshade. In Part Two, I start to take a close
look (a four hour interview!) at what motivates Mapleshade's
founder and recording engineer, Pierre Sprey. In the first part,
you may have noticed, conspicuous by its absence, any real dwelling
on Pierre's abilities as an engineer. Well, that is what this
interview focuses on.
I hope that my editing of
the hours of tape conveys the essence of what Pierre and I talked
about. Be prepared for some unorthodox yet refreshing views and
ideas about recording techniques, microphones, cabling and the
Greg: Obviously, a good
place to start would be at the beginning. Tell us a little about
yourself, schooling, the Pentagon background, a basic run down.
Pierre: I was born in
Niece, France and came here when I was three years old and grew
up in Q Gardens, New York. I was always basically interested in
science and engineering. I grew up in an atmosphere of music.
My father was a trained classical violinist, although he didn't
make his living as a violinist. I was surrounded by classical
music at a pretty early age.
I went to one of those New
York City high schools for gifted kids, Forrest Hill's high, and
always did a lot of science, biology and physics. I went to Yale
on a five year program doing a major in French literature and
mechanical engineering oriented to aeronautical engineering, which
is basically what I wanted to do. I wanted to become an airplane
I worked summers at Grumman
Aircraft from the time I started college and continued to work
for them all the way through graduate school as a consultant and
as a summer student. By my last year at Grumman, I'd decided I
didn't want to become an airplane designer because the road to
getting there was too long.
At the same time, I fell under
the influence of a bunch of mathematicians there. I became really
fascinated with probability and statistics. So I went to Cornell
for my graduate work and took probability and statistics and operations
When I got out of graduate
school I moved to New York City, to the heart of the lower east
side ghetto. I got an apartment, fixed it up pretty nicely and
commuted against the traffic, so to speak, out to Grumman Aircraft
every day. I became very deeply involved with the life of my block.
I started a reading center with the only other white guy on my
block for kids from 7 to 11. I also got more deeply involved in
Mind you, all through high
school and beyond I had friends who were jazz musicians. But as
it turned out, the block I lived on, 3rd Street between Avenue
C and D, was one block over from a place which was just becoming
legendary in the history of jazz, a place called "Slugs", which
is where free jazz was basically born in New York City.
I got more and more deeply
involved with jazz in New York because I was within walking distance
of "Slugs" and also "The Five Spot." I became friendly with more
jazz musicians in the city. After about four years on the lower
east side, I moved down to Washington to work for Secretary of
Defense Robert McNamera and became one of the "Whiz Kids" working
on analyzing the effectiveness of military weapons systems and
trying to save the taxpayer from taking too bad a bath on the
Greg: I've only heard stories.
Pierre: I stayed on
at the Pentagon as an official there from 1966 to 1971 then left
to work on pretty much the same project as a consultant.
Greg: During the time you
were in the lower east side, involved with all the jazz, were
you doing any recording or were you mostly just listening and
Pierre: I was just enjoying
it. I built my own amplifiers, just putting together kits and
things. I had kind of designed a speaker and built it. Oddly enough,
at that point already, I'd gone to lead lining the speaker cabinet.
I'm the largest user of lead in the high end now! (lots of laughter
from both of us)
I'm not sure I understood
all the real reasons why I should be using lead back then, but
it was heavy as a coffin. I fiddled with and rebuilt the suspension,
stuff like that. I'm not sure it was very good sounding! (lots
Greg: I'm sure it was a
lot of fun. And you probably learned a lot, too.
Pierre: Oh yeah. For
a long time, I was a monophile. You know, long after stereo arrived
I didn't see it, I just didn't see it. There were a lot of things
that sounded better to me about mono.
Greg: Quite a few people
still cherish the tonal characteristics and timber that is available
from some of the old mono's even the classic rock releases from
the late sixties.
Pierre: Yes, but I wasn't
an audiophile at all through those years. I was a record collector
and certainly into music, so I started to do a little recording
with battery powered recorders.
Greg: This was in 1966?
Pierre: Yes. But it
wasn't until I came to Washington that I really started to get
more deeply into recording. By 1970 or so, I was fairly interested.
Not in a high end way, but because I liked the music and was hanging
out in a network of neighborhood black clubs in Washington. They're
very warm and hospitable places, and there is a whole social scene
that is great for musicians because it is much more open than
in New York. People can just sit in. In a sense, because of that
open atmosphere, they didn't mind my recording.
At first it was just purely
to be there and record the event, but all this started to come
together in the early eighties. A number of things happened at
once that really steered me towards high end.
One of the journalists I was
hanging out with at that time who became a very good friend was
Fred Kaplan. At that time he was just finishing his PhD. thesis
which was based on a certain aspect of nuclear weapons. I was
helping him with certain statistical material that had to do with
accuracy of those weapons.
Greg: So this was well before
his days at The Absolute Sound. What was he like in those
Pierre: He was really
hard over, very knowledgeable jazz enthusiast. We traded a lot
of jazz lore and collected records together and started listening
together. And he was very rapidly heading towards the high end
at that time. I wasn't. I was very resistant to all that.
Greg: What changed all that?
Pierre: Well, at the
same time one of my fighter pilot friends named Bob Dilger, who
was a brilliant production engineer and fighter pilot, acquired
a turntable company.
He had been doing some consulting
in defense. One of the company's he had been working for went
bankrupt, and, in way of paying him for his work, they gave him
this teeny branch company which was building a pioneering air
bearing turntable called the Colony. Hardly anybody remembers
what it was. A horribly impractical thing, but a great concept.
The way they had executed it, you had to clean it every five minutes
as it was so susceptible to dust and junk in the air supply.
Being the great production
engineer that he is, he was just going to be damned if he wasn't
going to re-design that thing to make it producible and make it
practical. And that became the Maplenol Turntable.
Greg: Hum, is there some
common thread here between Maplenol and Mapleshade?
Pierre: None whatsoever.
It was a total accident. I think he had a farm called Maplenol.
I called my thing Mapleshade because I was living in an historic
house called Mapleshade. But that was still a few years off.
Bob was very modest and always
claimed to not be a great audiophile himself! At the time, the
turntable sold for about $600 to $1000, which I thought was total
lunacy. I had no concept of what it was about. When he explained
the air bearing principal to me I just said that was totally ridiculous.
Any turntable that turns at the right speed sounds as good as
any other turntable, right?
Greg: That was the theory
for a long time.
Pierre: I told him I
couldn't believe he was selling $1000 turntables. He didn't bug
me about it. He just smiled and kept on building his turntable.
By then we were very close friends. He used to stay at my place
when he came to Washington to do consulting business.
Well, one day in 1984 he showed
up for a visit and brought one of his turntables, a good cartridge,
one of the first Audible Illusions tube pre amps and power amp
and these wonderful little $400 Dayton Wrights, little triangular
black things. Just a modest little speaker, really brilliant in
their own way though, and ugly as sin.
I had no idea he was bringing
all this and while I was off consulting downtown, he just set
it up in my spare study at the old Mapleshade. When I got home,
he just said, "Have a listen. This is what I'm doing." He made
no claims for it or anything. I put on one of my old records and
in thirty seconds I was an audiophile. It became perfectly clear
to me that everything I had said up to this point was horse shit!
(Big laughter) It was like the blinding light on the road to Damascus.
Greg: What effect did this
Pierre: It redoubled
my interest in the collection of records and it impacted heavily
on my recording. Remember, all this while I was using a little
$250 JVC. I had started to get into Radio Shack PZM mikes, which
I started to fool with.
Now, I moved to a Nakamichi
Dragon, which I still have and which is a great, great cassette
machine. It will, to a ludicrous extent, out perform any DAT in
the world! People don't even begin to realize this because the
high end is so prejudiced against cassettes. I guarantee you that
I can make recordings on that Nakamichi Dragon! Or for that matter,
with something which comes very close and is one of the great
secrets of high end cassette work, the Sony Pro Walkman which
sells for under $300, that will totally blow away any DDD recording
you have ever heard. I could do symphony orchestras, jazz groups,
you name it. Particularly on those old Sony ceramic cased metal
This sudden interest in high
end immediately impacted my recording. I got much more deeply
involved in recording and I liked it much better.
Greg: When you say more
deeply involved, do you mean with things like microphone type
and placement and your recording techniques?
Pierre: Yes. And I moved
from my Radio Shack PZM's to Crowns. I started playing with changing
the voltages on the mikes and a lot of little tweaky things like
that. Not the kind of stuff I've gotten into now. I also did a
lot of work on mounting the PZM's on panels and wedges and all
Greg: Now that you were
playing with a new deck, new mikes and new techniques, what did
you notice that was different?
Pierre: It was everything
I was listening for on a shaded dog. And also at this time I started
working with Dilger on redesigning his turntables. I was doing
some of the tweaking and was responsible for some of the major
model changes. I was the one who did the first experiments on
locking out his suspension.
He had an interesting spring
suspension on the Athena's. I remember hearing something about
Japanese audiophiles who believed in mass rather than suspension,
and I worked out a way to lock out the suspension without really
changing the turntable in any other way. And when I tried it,
it was like a revelation. It was so much better. We immediately
started to do a whole bunch of experiments on how to make the
whole turntable more rigid. It made a huge difference. That was
really the beginning of Dilger's designs becoming world class.
All this led to an inevitable
improvement in my recordings. They were improving in every direction,
imaging was getting much, much better, better transparency, tonal
That is when I started getting
my first emphasis on timbre and detail. Remember I was recording
on headphones. That was a whole evolution, how to get to better
headphones because they were so crucial. The major step was due
to hanging out at a really elegant high end shop in Alexandria
The guy who was the manager
of Excalibur at the time, was moving and sold me his Stax headphones,
which I have tweaked and still use.
That provided a major step
forward for me. Now I could really hear some details of mike placement
and things like that. It was like going to an electron microscope
after using a high school lab microscope. They were a tremendous
tool for advancing my recording capabilities.
By 1985 or '86, musicians
were asking me to come around and record them because the quality
of my cassettes was already somewhat better than the quality of
the commercial recordings and people were beginning to recognize
that. My masters certainly sounded significantly better than almost
any commercial jazz recordings I had heard to that time. At that
point, I realized how dificient standard recording techniques
were. And I could acknowledge that I didn't know that much.
Greg: In some ways, that
probably helped you. Because not knowing that you shouldn't or
couldn't do certain things allowed you to act on your instincts
and try things you likely would have known wouldn't work.
Pierre: Yeah, from time
to time I would look at books on recording and the stuff was so
obviously hog wash that I just didn't pay much attention to it.
I just went back to doing things that I learned on my own. The
wonderful thing about high end is the principal that only your
ears count. And that's a way of making brilliant advances in designing
anything that has to do with audio, and certainly in designing
ways of recording.
One of the musicians I was
recording then, and would record today in any circumstances, was
Shirley Horn. I had met her in one of these funky clubs where
she would come and hang out because she liked the music, even
though she was a level way beyond the music in these clubs.
At that time, she wasn't very
famous. She had a cult following. Miles Davis had discovered her
and brought her to New York, so people in New York knew how good
she was. I had just gotten to a point that some of the latest
recordings I'd done of Shirley were clearly better than her albums.
Just at that point, another thread joined all these others.
I had a 1911 Steinway, a smallish
grand, that was in horrible shape and was unplayable. A friend
had given it to me years earlier and it was just sitting around,
a piece of furniture, going down hill. I started to feel guilty
about the piano.
Greg: That is the Steinway
in the studio, right? That thing sounds great but I read you had
a ton of restoration done to it.
Pierre: After spending
a couple of years of looking for someone to rebuild it I was seriously
contemplating not doing it because I wasn't finding people I trusted
and the shock of what it would cost. Then I found this wonderful
young pair of partners just starting their own piano restoration
business, Rick Jordan and Ronnie Guilardi. They had founded Potomac
Keyboards and they came out to give me an estimate and spent like
two hours going through the piano.
It was so obvious from the
way they were going through it that they truly loved pianos. They
were so meticulous with their inspection and careful about not
promising me things they could not deliver that I gave them the
piano and said do everything needed to preserve the sound and
to preserve it structurally so there would be no further deterioration,
but don't even look at the cosmetics. Cosmetic restorations can
be very expensive, and were of no interest to me.
Greg: How long did all that
Pierre: They had it
for three months or so. They gave me weekly reports on its progress
and what they found as they were disassembling it to it's constituent
atoms. They did a wonderful restoration job. Every part that could
in any way be restored, they kept and put in twice as much work
instead of just buying a Steinway replacement part. They re-felted
all the felt bearings and jacks just in order to keep it as original
as possible. To this day, they are the only people who I will
let work on the piano. It turns out, it was like a really fortunate
Rick is really good at the
mechanical aspects of pianos, the wood, the structure, the actions
and Ronnie is a brilliant tuner. You just don't know how important
that is, how different my piano sounds if one tuner tunes it rather
than another, and Ronnie is a genius at it. She is a very modest
woman, and gets rather embarrassed when you tell her how good
she is. We go crazy if we have a session here and she is on vacation.
It's like a disaster because we have to put up with inferior tuning.
They do all the maintenance
and have made many audioproducts to the keyboard since the magnificent
job of restoration. They have done a lot more work and made many
advances in the meantime. That piano sounds far better than it
did when it came from the factory.
The first restoration of the
piano was a success way beyond what anyone would have thought.
You know, you can't tell with a piano. If a piano is unplayable,
all you can do is rebuild it and figure out afterward if it sounds
any good. It's a real gamble. It just turned out that this was
one of those one in a thousand Steinway's that sings.
When it came back it sounded
good to me. I didn't know how good at that time. But I was excited
so I called Shirley to come over and check out the piano. She
fell in love with it. So I told her just treat it like it's your
own, any time you want to come and shed on it, shed all night,
that's fine with me. She used to come every two weeks and play
One of those nights, I was
sitting on a stool by the piano, very happily listening to her
when she looked up from the keyboard and she said, "P. baby, I
want to do my next album on this piano and I want you to be my
Greg: That sounds like a
pivotal point? Who was she recording with at the time?
Pierre: She had a little
record contract with a label down south called Audiophile. They
were certainly not an audiophile label, they had just bought the
name from a very famous 78 label. They had a wonderful catalog
of singers, which included Shirley. They were astute enough, even
though she was basically a cult singer, and gave her an itty bitty
contract for her to do a recording. There was barely enough money
in the engineering end of the contract for me to rent some equipment
to go make a reel to reel master. But I scrounged enough equipment
here an there and dug up some Neumann mikes to try out.
Greg: What was that experience
Pierre: It turned out
to be a big flop. That cured me of big condenser mikes right there.
I had my PZM's, but I thought that now that I'm doing a serious
recording, I have to get these serious mikes. I tried them and
they were just awful. They were devastatingly undetailed, which
for Shirley was a disaster because she has the most wonderful
subtle inflections of voice. That cured me forever of famous mikes.
Let me assure you that famous mikes aren't worth the powder to
blow them to hell!
Greg: Fortunnately for us,
you've gone beyond that.
Pierre: We did the recording
over a couple days.
Greg: Was that recording
Pierre: No, that was
at the Old Mapleshade, which was the previous house where I started
the studio. It's about ten miles from here.
Shirley loved it because of
the atmosphere. There was good food, and we told her she was welcomed
to bring good friends. Shirley hates to record to just four walls.
She is one of those people who has to have a live audience, even
if it's not large. So we had people lounging around in the room
beyond and a couple in the room with her so she had some live
Greg: That sense of community
seems to have stuck with you, the cooking, the fraternity, all
Pierre: Well, she was
one of the key people who taught me that. The people who really
taught me how important the atmosphere in a recording studio can
be were Shirley, Clifford Jordan, and Walter Davis. They really
shaped the way I think about how a studio ought to feel for the
musicians. They all share the characteristics that they liked
to eat very well and could hang till dawn and beyond. For Shirley,
if a session or a night breaks up when the sun comes up, that's
called a light hang. A heavy hang goes till noon the next day.
I'm very proud of the fact
that there has never been a session at Mapleshade that got cut
short because the engineer couldn't hang. I enjoyed that session
so much, and we got a very good album called Softly, which
I still think is one of Shirley's finest, even though it is not
very well known because it is on this little label.
Greg: Was that your first
credit as an engineer?
Pierre: Yeah, that was
my first paid, professional gig.
Greg: When was that?
Pierre: It was 1986,
and I enjoyed it so much I decided to put out my shingle as a
weekend studio. I wasn't giving up my consulting company or my
work on fighter airplains and tanks, but I was definitely on the
road to running a studio. My goal at that time was to do projects
with artists like Shirley and Clifford Jordan, people like that.
We would do them as joint partners and then we would take the
master tapes and shop them to established labels. I had no desire
to be a label at all. I had only the vaguest idea of how much
scud work was necessary to be a label, and even that vague notion
was enough to repel me. I just wanted to do recordings in partnership
And that is just what I did
for three or four years. The whole experience with dealing with
the kind of people there are in the music business was extremely
distasteful to me. I hated the fact that I was forced to try to
establish business relationships with them. They had unbelievable
ways of taking what was a good master tape and telling the little
bits you had to add in order to make it commercially salable.
It would totally wreck it. They would take something that was
a totally enjoyable work of art and turn it into trash. And they
were wrong about what would help a record sell.
Greg: Well, that is because
they are in the "business" of music. They typically work by formula.
This sold, so if we make this new product like the formula, it
too will sell.
Pierre: Yeah, it turns
a lot of great music and great artists and singers into plastic.
One of the very few that I know that ever recovered, and only
partially so, was Aretha Franklin. They had her put out a whole
series of totally forgettable albums from which she has partially
recovered and regained her soul in a way. But the damage to what
she could have done is appalling. And there are a zillion singers
and musicians like that, who have all been touched by the dead
hand of the recording industry.
I just really didn't like
the people in the industry. I hadn't opened a studio to find a
job, I had a job. I certainly wasn't going to do it if the experience
of dealing with the record business was going to take the joy
out of what I was doing. So in a sense, I was backed into the
corner of having to put out the records myself to avoid dealing
with the people I didn't want to deal with. And that is essentially
how Mapleshade was born.
Greg: When was that?
Pierre: Right about
1990 I started working turning out some albums. By this time,
we had quite a back log of some really wonderful master tapes.
About that time I hooked up
with the Musical Heritage Society, which had just started the
Jazz Heritage Society branch. They are the largest independent
record club in America. He set up an arrangement where we would
do ten albums for them.
So we got hard at work developing
covers and liner notes to put out ten albums. Some of the people
who collect Mapleshade's know those as the old black and whites.
The deal we struck with them was that they would distribute us
through their catalog and we were free to distribute ourselves
through other means.
Greg: Those titles include
the now famous Clifford Jordan Live at Ethell's as well
as one of my favorites, Jazznost. Also in that group are
Sunnyland Slim's Live at the D.C. Blues Society, Archie
Edwards' Blues 'N Bones and Walter Davis, Jr's In Walked
Thelonious among others, correct?
Greg: This was the catalog
of material I was first exposed to when I was still managing a
high end store.
Pierre: The reason you
had it was that as soon as we hooked up with Musical Heritage,
we promptly went after the high end world since I was a committed
audiophile and thought that we could get a good following in the
audio world. We did then and we still do today. We have about
200 high end dealers who carry our catalog and we are very careful
to preserve good relations with them.
In a funny kind of way, the
high end audio predilection to place sound over music, which I
think is perverse, is our road to artistic freedom. It allows
us to record unknown artists and bring along people that you didn't
know. If we do a good job of recording a really fine young pianist,
like Frank Kimbrough, who was totally unknown at the time, audiophiles
will buy it.
Greg: Actually, it's kind
of a turn on because when you have your audiophile buddies over
and play it for them, it's like, "Wow, what is that? I've got
to get that"!
Pierre: In the regular
music business, it is a much harder fight to put across someone
like Frank. All those record buyers and distributors have a built
in bias. Who is he? I don't know that name, why should I sell
Greg: Of the many things
we talked of the last time I was here was your work with interconnects
and cables. I have played with speaker cables a lot and actually
just published a piece wherein I try to codify the sonic attributes
of the differing types, materials and constructions. I'm fascinated
by some of your ideas in this area; you're into thinness and even
build some D/C biased cables. Can you go into this for me.
Pierre: I started working
on wires back in '86, both because of my audiophile playback and
recording interests and my need for microphone cables. On both
sides it became obvious that wires made a big difference.
My first experiment with wires
was a huge disappointment. I added huge sub woofers to my Martin
Logans, and with that same mindlessness that we all fell into,
thought I've gotta' have really big wires. But I didn't want to
spend audiophile prices because I had already paid too much for
my main panel wires.
So I went out and got myself
some 12 guage house wiring stuff. And boy, my sub woofers sounded
awful, bloated and muddy. Still to this day, big wires are terrible.
Particularly in the bass, which is why everybody buys them. The
thinking is that it takes more current to drive big speakers.
All this stuff that nobody tests by ear allows them to fall into
the plausibility traps.
Greg: How did you evolve
past that trap?
Pierre: I started to
do modest experiments. Fortunately, I was reading one of the British
magazines which I still read avidly. It always had a few treasures
of technical information, more so than either The Absolute
Sound or Stereophile! That was Hi Fi News and
Record Review. They always had coverage on Dennis Morecroft,
who was one of the pioneers of solid core wire and to a more limited
extent, thin wires. It registered on me that this was an avenue
Greg: I have had great success
with solid core wires. What were the results of all your experimentation?
Pierre: Solid wires
worked out very nicely. So did my work with dielectrics. I pretty
quickly got onto teflon, and then thin teflon. I wasn't pushing
any boundaries as far as thin wire went because I wasn't spending
any time fabricating, I was just getting fairly thin wire and
then trying it out. Then after a short while, I started building
solid core interconnects for Bob Dilger and his turntable customers
with fairly thin wire, thin enough that I could still deal with
Just about that time, 1990
or 1991, a mutual friend who had retired from the Pentagon, introduced
me to Ron Bauman, who was someone he greatly admired for having
extensively rebuilt and tweaked amplifiers. Ron is my partner
now, and has his own company called In Sound. We've been working
together on wires and things ever since.
We've done an extraordinary
set of experiments in the last seven years, often working three
nights a week for six or seven hours at a time.
Greg: Is that the Omega
Pierre: Yes, Omega Micro
is the line which grew out of that research. At first we were
just getting together out of mutual interest in the subject! I
was interested in his circuit design and he was interested in
my recording style. I had access to some equipment that he didn't
Greg: So it was just two
friends sharing ideas at first?
Pierre: We didn't have
the intention of doing something professional, we were just trying
to help each other with each others systems and bring each others
strength to bear on the work. I started showing him solid core
wires. He already had an inkling about wires, feeling that wires
did make a difference. But he hadn't gone to the lengths of thin
wire I had, which even then weren't so extreme. We've gone way
beyond that now, but it was a little radical for him then.
Greg: Radical in what sense?
Pierre: Right from the
start we heavily influenced each other. He is a brilliantly innovative
and original Radio Frequency engineer. I was impressed that he
was so surprisingly open to some of the radical ideas I was introducing
I introduced him to my deep
hatred of sine waves, which is based on the fact that sine wave
theory has completely screwed up electrical engineering in the
audio world. My statement is based on some mathematical prejudices
about the piss poor mathematics the electrical engineers use and
their piss poor attitude toward mathematical fundamentals. It
was like a battle I'd fought for years in statistics against a
similarly ingrained and supposed fundamental proof, the gaussian
distribution. This is the normal distribution which is almost
universally used in statistics and is universally wrong! Well,
sine waves are exactly in the same boat in that they are universally
used and, at least as far as audio goes, universally wrong! There
is no area of audio that isn't completely corrupted and destroyed
by the wrong conclusions that come from using sine waves as your
test signal or as your theoretical construct around which you
build your conclusions.
That was a little radical
for Ron. Particularly as an RF engineer, where they do use sine
waves. It's really been an extraordinary partnership between us.
Greg: Where was that initial
work done, here at this house?
Pierre: No, he has a
beautiful brown-stone in Georgetown. We used to work in his living
room, to the horror of his very artistic and extraordinarily gifted
wife, Marci. She was patient enough to put up with the mess we
were making in her living room. You had to see it to appreciate
what it was like in those days.
Ron had this practice of building
amplifiers with about four chassis per channel. All these chassis
wired together with this funky wire, right? Towards the end, with
what I thought was a sarcastic comment, I apparently fomented
his building a brilliantly good water cooled amplifier called
You had to see this scene
in this wonderfully elegant brown-stone, almost a mansion, that
they had restored. Now, here is this destroyed living room filled
with wires and 1942 transformers. Ron loves to build with ancient
stuff and never throws anything away. He's got Korean war components
and North Africa Signal Corps. components, World War II stuff,
its amazing. And here, through the middle of this living room
are these two plastic tubes running back to the sink in the kitchen,
nearly the full length of his house, carrying water to his amplifier.
(a moments pause for extreme laughter)
Every time Marci walked through
the living room she was horrified. Then came the day one of the
tubes sprang a leak and soaked her wonderful Persian carpet. (more
We finally put together a
basement lab which invades the family much less. It's a little
peculiar acoustically, because it's right next to the furnace,
but we get surprisingly good sound out of it. We've carried on
the rest of our experiments there.
Greg: You've come up with
some interesting theories on silver. How did all that come about?
Pierre: We had done
all the experiments using silver, and every time we had silver
plated our cables, it always sounded bad. We record all our experiments
and experimental findings and we often go back and redo old experiments
because of a suspicion that we may have screwed it up. That is
very helpful. Sometimes we make real progress like that.
Lloyd Walker, our distributer
for Omega Mikro, kept on bugging us about silver because he had
heard good things from silver cables. So out came the notebooks
so we could redo the experiments.
Greg: What were your conclusions
about using silver?
Pierre: We had discovered
that when applying silver, you cannot apply too little. In order
to make silver really work for you in conductors, the secret is
to use it super thin. We took out our super thin copper ribbons
and hand silvered them. The very latest version of our speaker
cable is silvered on only one side. With our hand silvering process,
we apply a super thin, mono-molecular layer. It is very labor
intensive and is very difficult and is a major factor in contributing
to their higher cost. We have tried to replace it with a commercial
process, but it hasn't been as effective as the hand application.
Ron had just finished silvering
one side of the ribbon and, before doing the other side, I said,
just for a lark, let's listen to it. Although my reason for doing
it was totally stupid, it turned out like perfection. When we
had listened for a while, we then silvered the other side. When
we listened again, it was terrible, much worse than just the bare
In retrospect, I don't think
it was because we had half as much silver, I think it applies
to the change in the shape of the field around the conductor and
how the field of the two conductors intereact. I think the benefit
is that we have simply created an asymmetrical field around the
conductor which has somehow either improved or reduced the extent
to which the interaction muddies the sound. That's a guess, but
it is certainly much closer to the right idea than anything else
we have come up with. This is pretty recent stuff.
Greg: That is VERY interesting.
Let's back up and find out how you got to this point.
Pierre: We started out
about seven years ago going in this thin wire direction. From
time to time we would check other constructions when people would
insist that this or that type sounded good, but basically all
our experiments have revealed that the thinner the wire gets,
the better it sounds, without limit!
In the case of interconnect,
we have never found a wire that is too thin, we have reached a
limit based on it's practicality. I can't handle it, Ron has trained
himself to do so.
Greg: Can you give me a
Pierre: We're talking
about a diameter of about one half a thousandth of an inch. If
you soldered it to two terminals here and turned on a fan, the
wire would break!
Greg: What do you use as
Pierre: Super thin teflon.
We are always looking for ways to make the dielectric thinner,
just like the wire. Those are the two major areas that we have
followed. The thinner the wire, the smaller the skin effect, which
if of overwhelming importance in a wires resultant sound. What
really counts is less skin effect and less dielectric absorption.
All this business with resistance, conductance and capacitance
being crucial to wire is hog wash. As far as we can tell, they
are almost irrelevant to wires. And I don't mean the conventional
inductance interactions, We don't understand all that real well
yet. But the proximity to each other has a powerful effect. In
general, we recommend you keep our speaker wires at least six
inches apart. And further is better.
Greg: And you don't recommend
this for induction related reasons? You think there is something
else going on?
Pierre: Well, obviously
it is induction related, but not in the sense that with twice
as many milli-Henries of induction or half as many, that you are
able to predict what will happen. It is not that at all, it has
to do with the shape of the field and other things we don't completely
understand. To give you an example, just twisting the ribbon changes
the sound. Even how you twist the two ribbons relative to each
other will either worsen or improve the sound. That has nothing
to do with conventional notions of inductance.
Greg: Is there a rhyme or
reason to what you have found; can it be codified?
Pierre: Yes, there are
real patterns, and we provide those in our instructions to our
Greg: Now, this application
of thinness does not apply to loudspeaker cable or power cables,
Pierre: Now obviously,
with speaker wire and A/C cables, you can't use stuff that's hair
thin because of the current limits. And by the way, the current
limits are totally different from what peoples intuition implies.
The thought that power wires for amplifiers have to be fourteen
gauge to really transfer the power is hog wash.
You can run an amplifier very
succesfully off twenty two or twenty four gage, and not even feel
the warmth of the wire. People have come up with the notion that
a wire needs to be as thick as a lamp cord, or hopefully twice
as big. Well, that's just wrong!
Greg: That's just wrong!
Pierre: Yeah, try it.
It doesn't sound good so you try a thinner one and it sounds better.
When you are dealing with round wire, there are clear optimums
and trade-offs. Round speaker wire tends to be the best around
18 gauge. We're not the first to say that, we've reconfirmed it.
When you get thinner than that, midrange and treble continue to
improve, but bass performance falls off.. However, sixteen gauge
is a much worse compromise than twenty gauge!
Greg: The arguments I've
always read say the longer the run, the larger the gauge needed
to avoid insertion loss.
Pierre: Hog wash!
Greg: We've touched on power
cables, are you using flat or round wires?
Pierre: For interconnects,
we went to thin round wire. That worked out once we learned how
to drag super microscopic wire through copper tubes. We had a
whole development program on copper tubing. The copper tube changes
the sound. It was the copper tube that lead us to the silver plating.
We found out that even the alloy of the copper in the tube makes
a difference. This shield is not a conductor, remember our wires
are balanced. We're not big on the need for RF protection. But
we needed the tube for protection of the conductors themselves!
The original copper tubes were simply grounded at one end, floating
at the other, so they were pure shield, they were not music conductors.
Despite that, the thickness
of the copper made a tremendous difference to the sound. Too much
silver plating of that copper, which is where we first applied
silver, made a tremendous difference in the sound. Like our wire,
even the shield turned out to be directional, and it isn't even
carrying a signal! One of the principals we discovered as we went
along is that you want to arrange the metallurgy to make the wires
as directional as possible. It was an odd result! But from that
point on, we made arrangements with our rolling mill to make the
wires as directional as possible. That in itself was a project,
working out correct annealing temperatures, rolling proceses and
Once we got to experimenting
with these tubes, we got into tubular conductors. Remember there
were those guys who went that direction.
Greg: Yes, Cogan-Hall. They
built the first tubular wire I heard.
Pierre: Yes, they were
pioneers of tubular conductors. I'm still convinced that the ultimate
conductor is a super thin wall tubular conductor. But our experiments
led us to determine that to achieve the kind of results we wanted,
the walls had to be hopelessly thin, so thin in fact that they
would work only in a straight line! Bend them and they kink.
Greg: Have you found some
relationship to wall thickness and performance?
Pierre: The rule of
thumb for manufacturing a wire which won't kink is to have the
wall thickness about one half of the radius of the tube, and that
turns out to be too thick to achieve really cutting edge sound.
If you could keep your wires in a straight line, then a tube made
of foil would produce the best results. Since that isn't possible,
we have just unwrapped the tube, yielding our flat ribbons.
In this respect, the flat
ribbons were just like the thin round wires, the thinner we made
them, the better they sounded. We just pushed it.
Greg: Several companies
are enjoying varied success with flat conductors; namely Goertz
Pierre: From our point
of view, these are not cutting edge wires because they are far
too thick, like one or two orders of magnitude thicker than ours.
Our speaker cable is now around one thousandth of an inch in thickness.
You know, if we wanted to
make it really hopelessly impractical, we could make it a couple
of ten thousandths of an inch thick! And it would sound better.
But we have to incorporate some level of practicality.
The same principal applies
to our A/C cords. We call them Planar Power because there are
three ribbons inside a silver plated shield.
What we have done is create
no compromise wires. We are the only people in the country who
are doing so. What that means is that the wires are delicate and
a pain in the ass to handle. We have not compromised them to be
able to haul boats or lift a well bucket or anything like that.
They are not bullet proof. Some are really fragile. None can be
stepped on. You certainly can't vacuum clean over them!
Greg: Now, average folks
can buy these right?
Pierre: Sure. They are
on the expensive side because they are all hand constructed and
they are very labor intensive to manufacture.
Greg: What kind of pricing
are we talking about for what length?
Pierre: We don't build
anything less than eight feet long. We found that four and six
foot length don't sound as good as eight, so that is our minimum
length. We are not the first to come to this assumption. All these
people who have their amps parked right behind their speakers
and use really short runs of cable have made a horrible mistake.
Our passive speaker cables
are $599 a set, our biased cables, which we call the active are
$999 a set, and our active with silver runs $1350 per pair.
Greg: That's not ridiculous
in today's cable pricing. What do you suggest for people who don't
need an eight foot long run, draping?
Pierre: Yes, you obviously
don't want to coil them. But they don't have to go up to the ceiling
either, just keep them up off the carpet or floor. And that is
true with any cable, not just ours.
Greg: Now why does the battery
biasing improve the sound? Is it done for RF and EMI protection?
Pierre: I don't know
why they sound better!
Greg: I KNEW you were going
to say that!
Pierre: It was a guess
we took. We had gone to this open mesh shield that is actually
a single conductor even though it looks like a braid. We had gone
to that in order to reduce the dielectric interaction. We used
to have a sleeve with a very thin polypropylene sheath we called
a condom. They were nice, but people really hated the way they
looked and they were very delicate. The sheath was only six ten-thousandths
of an inch thick.
One of the off-the-wall methods
we came up with was a copper mesh tube. It was very open, like
the mesh on an onion bag at the grocery store, with a very thin
dielectric over it. The idea being that the dielectric didn't
need to support itself, the copper did that for us to we could
go down to one or two ten-thousandths for the sheath. That is
now our passive cable.
But fooling with it, we realized
it was a single conductor all the way down the bundle. So we thought,
why don't we try what they did in the thirties in old RF transmission
line designs, which was to apply a voltage on the shield. Our
original thought was that maybe speaker cables need an RF shield.
It wasn't clear that they do, but then again, it is possible that
they act as antenna's.
Another theory of our was
that it polarized the dielectric with an electrostatic field,
maybe you are getting closer to a perfect non-absorbing dielectric.
We tried to do some experiments to confirm the hypothesis, but
were never satisfied as to resolving the issue.
But for some reason, things
that effect RF frequencies and are not audible can have a very
striking effect on audio. Well, we gave it a try and WOW, it sounded
great! It was a major improvement. Then we spent a great deal
of time optimizing the proper voltage. There are some real mysteries
about what turns out to sound optimum. You can change the sound
by paralleling too many batteries, we even found we had to do
some filtering of the battery output. So it wasn't at all clear
that we were doing what the old guys in RF were doing. But what
was clear that we found great sound.
Greg: What do you hear as
the differences between your passive and active cables?
Pierre: Two things.
When you go to the active, everything comes out of a quieter,
blacker background. And you get a cleaner transient. Leading edges
are cleaner, not necessarily louder, although that is something
we listened for. Going to a thinner gauge wire always makes the
transients louder. But the leading edges sound cleaner and quicker,
and the reverberant trial on notes extends longer, is more sustained.
And there is a sweetening of the treble. I'm note sure there is
an extension, but it is sweeter sounding.
Now the silver clearly extends
the treble. Detail gets a lot better. We had tried lots of silver
configurations, solid ribbons, solid thin wires, high purity silver,
thicker silver plantings, but they all added an edge. They increased
detail but to the point of edginess. Our mono-molecular application
allows the detail without the edge. We would not settle for the
graininess even for the sake of detail, so we settled on themono-molecular,
single sided silver coating.
Greg: What has been the
reaction to your cables?
Pierre: Well, our distributor
Lloyd Walker took them up to New York to Sound By Singer. He just
told me last week that our active silver cable blew away three
different $15,000 brands. We had thought that Andy would be very
resistant to a delicate cable like ours, but he said, "Fine, put
them in the reference room." So with that in mind, if you have
a listening room you can exhibit control over we feel our wires
are unbeatable. There are wires that are awfully good AND bullet
proof, but they have to make compromises.
Greg: I hope to get a chance
to hear some of these cables. It seems that you are almost applying
technology through an anti-technological approach.
Pierre: Yes, but you
know we've branched out. We're working on capacitors, resistors
and inductors, following basically the principals we started with.
And it has opened up a lot of vistas for us. Out of our wire research,
we learned loads about amplifier layout, physically how you place
transformers and other components relative to each other.
Particularly with coils! People
don't understand that coils speak to each other over distances
of even three and four feet. There is something very peculiar
about the way the magnetic fields do not follow the square law.
The audible effects at three and four feet of two coils "speaking"
to each other, like a crossover coil speaking to a speaker coil,
are very noticeable and can be demonstrated by just turning them
Greg: Obviously this is
something you haven't shared with Bose? (much laughter)
Pierre: Well, no. They
are complete slaves of the sine wave mentality, which is why their
speakers sound so bad. After all, Dr. Bose is one of the brilliant
sine wave theoreticians.
The whole trap comes in that
the mid fi world doesn't use its ears! It's dominated by a few
testing laboratories that put out sine wave results! If they say
that the distortion is .001, then a speaker sells. It's just ludicrous.
One thing that pains me is
when people talk about what I'm doing as this low tech revolution.
I don't think of it that way. The reason it pains me is that it
reminds me of my twenty years in the Pentagon where I had to fight
exactly the same battle. People kept accusing the fighters I was
working on of being low tech. They were not! They just were not
complex. They actually have a technology at a cutting edge well
beyond the conventional high tech fighters. We simply picked and
chose our technology to be super effective.
Greg: Pierre, my statement
about anti-technology wasn't meant to offend you. What I meant
was that you ignore the accepted rules and re-examine things with
no preconceptions in an effort to make it simpler or to make it
sound more to your liking. I certainly wasn't trying to insult
you! In fact, in my own back-handed way, I was trying to pay you
Pierre: Oh no, I realize
that, and thank you. In a way, I'm very proud of being a Luddite.
Greg: That is an excellent
Pierre: I'm happy to
blow up conventional technology. It is just that I don't want
to be tarred with the feather of using low tech or ancient tech.
Greg: It is kind
of refreshing to see someone step back from almost dogmatic adherence
to conventional theory and approach the design of sonic components
with their ears in mind.
When I was younger and
first got involved with the martial arts, there was a great deal
of Zen Buddhism involved. It struck me that the eastern methodology
for dealing with things was much different. For example, I saw
fifty and sixty year old men do things that I KNEW through conventional
knowledge that people just couldn't do. Jumping straight into
the air, moving at blinding speeds, breaking things like tree
trunks and steel fire doors with bare hands, things that just
could not be done! Yet they were able to achieve them with relative
I think I can directly
attribute any success I may have had in life to that association.
I stopped believing in that I couldn't do something just because
someone said it couldn't be done. I see your work to be similar
Pierre: On that subject,
I have to say that my involvement with music and recording has
made me vastly more open minded than when I was at the Pentagon.
I was always radical and a destroyer of the old there, but the
battles were so fierce. You had to defend your turf every day
against people who wanted to destroy your project and ideas. You
become very rigid in a way.
Greg: That has to be so
counter productive and frustrating.
Pierre: And it takes
forever between having an idea and having it implemented. Where
as here, if I have an idea tonight while I'm talking to you, I
can stay up an extra hour and solder a few resistors together
and see if it works. Then tomorrow morning I'll have the satisfaction
of knowing that I made some progress. It's very gratifying.
Greg: You must be very happy
with your work.
Pierre: That is one
of the wonderful things about the wire work with Ron. We come
away from night after night of work with this well of accomplishment.
One of the things which really has made me much more flexible
and open minded and is one of the reasons I'm so happy doing what
I'm doing is that I have finally learned to enjoy blowing up my
The turntable work was the
first thing that really did that for me. You know you get into
one of these designs and experimental paths of trying to create
better sound, you start to do a few experiments then you build
some theoretical construct about why your experiments are working.
That construct leads to more experiments which further confirm
your theory. You start to get pretty proud, thinking this is pretty
good theory, this is pretty bright, right? Then you do one crucial
experiment and the whole damn structure dissolves and it turns
out that everything you thought was wrong!
The first two or three times
that happened to me while working on the turntables, it was just
devastating. It was similar to the feelings I had after suffering
a major defeat on one of my airplane programs at the Pentagon.
By about the third time it happened, I said to myself, you know
the last two times this happened, within a week or two, I really
made some big progress.
Greg: I suppose now you
almost look forward to these things?
Pierre: Both Ron and
I are ecstatic when some two year development of ours falls apart!
Now when we do a crucial experiment that shows that our thinking
was totally wrong, it's wonderful! You know, we just step back
and say, "Look how stupid that was!" (big laughter break) Even
if you don't make a big step at that time, you know it is about