Live from Casa Saxon

August 1997

Demo Discs

[SOUNDSTAGE SINGS]Good recordings are necessary for good demoes. A disc I use to open listening sessions is called "Sounds of the North Country," (Nanook Records 0’02") a compilation of windsong and animal noises recorded in an igloo near the Artic circle. The disc is basically 42 minutes of tranquility interrupted on occasion by nerve-shattering roars. I like the recording because it re-orients the listener from his mundane workaday world into my milieu of aural dread. Each cycle of stillness and terror lasts several minutes, and causes dry throat. When the listener gulps in panic, I suggest he concentrate on the igloo’s interior ambience: "See if you can you hear water trickling." Melting water is hard to discern when an obvious polar bear is about to slaughter another sled dog. After twenty minutes of "Sounds of the North Country" ones hearing acuity is sky high. Then, I ask if the frozen cricket is audible. A nodding head shows the customer is ready to move on to a more challenging recording.

Next up is "The Ides of Texas" (Cut ‘n’ Shoot .45), Early Music (pre-Palestrina) as performed by George Strait’s former back-up group, The Tumbleweeds. If you like chant, and you like country-western, what could be better than combining the two? Sonically, as well as olfactorily, the disc is a blockbuster. One member of the group stands way over there, and intones "Remember the Alamo" in Latin, while the rest of the ‘Weeds project so far forward, one can smell their after-shave (et tu Brute?) . When the system is really in sync, one can hear, at 2:47 of cut three, a rude noise followed by a whiff of swamp gas. This brings oohs and ahs from the cognoscenti. As Marco, my Early Music mentor, points out, "That, gentlemen, is transparency."

An ultimate test of frequency response is "The Life of Whales," not be be confused with "Still-life in Wales", a collection of muted soccer songs. "Whales" (JAWS XVI) was recorded posthumously by Jacques Crusteau and captures the 40kHz mating whistle of the sperm whale followed by 16Hz grunts of satisfaction. If the listener’s system cannot capture either extreme, I tell him he needs new loudspeakers. If he resists, I tell him to buy new cables. If he still resists, I give him a set of Black Diamond Racing cones, and tell him he can thank me for them later.

[SAX]The astute reader will notice that my top three "test" cds focus on special effects more than music. This is because recorded music is a deterrent to the sale of audio hardware. When the components are really good, as ours are, most recordings sound awful, those of the big labels, DG in particular, being the worst.

Recently, I ruined a loudspeaker demo by giving in to demands of the customer who wanted to hear a disc he had brought with him, Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin on DG415 346-2. The piano had no highs, no lows, and honked like a goose in the midrange. "But your excellency," I pleaded, "the recording is lousy." "Maybe so," he replied, "but if I can’t listen to my favorite recording on these speakers, why should I buy them?" There’s the rub. The better the equipment, the fewer listening choices one has.

Scouring the magazines, including this one, for mention of sonically acceptable music, I have found a few cds that pass muster musically. I would like to publicise such discs in the hope that my name will grace print ads for them, such as "Jim Saxon of SoundStage! calls ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ a bloody miracle." I mean, it’s nice to be quoted as an authority on something besides loafing or drinking beer.

So, while making phrases in the process, may I present a list of compact discs which contain stereo-friendly music.

  1. "Pyrrhic Victory" (Heracleia 279B.C.) marks the return of hard-rocker Joyce James to recording ranks after a serious throat operation. Sporting a new electronic larynx, Ms. James vivifies the pathos of late-period Nillson. Her hoarse rendition of "Jump Into the Fire" brings tears. For classic rock and electronic music lovers alike.
  2. "Mario Andretti at Carnegie Hall" (Newman-Haas 212MPH) heralds the opera singing debut of a car racing legend. Mr. Andretti also produced this mixture of arias and the disc refects it. The empty hall atmosphere is startling.
  3. "Bueno, Bonito, Barato" (Fleamarket 2.95) is a prime example of world music recorded on a shoestring. The title, which loosely translates to "Can you get it for me wholesale?", is derived from a saying popular among audiophiles of all languages. This analog-to-the-metal disc was recorded on a mini-casette smuggled into a Venezuelan prison yard. Pepe LeMoko on bass and Luis Alou in centerfield are featured perfomers.
  4. "Organ Music for the Hearing Impaired" (Guillou Harmonia 122dB) is a lease-breaker if ever you’ve heard one. Improvisations on scary-movie themes make for entertaining late-night listening sessions. If you are an insomniac, you can now fill those dark nights of the soul with song!
  5. Finally, "Mercury Rising, Pressure Drop on You" (Marley Exploitation 1996) is a crossover album of classical hits played reggae-style by some of Jamaica’s most desperate criminals. A fun aspect of this disc is trying to guess the brand of the 67-key piano used for the session. Is it a Steinway baby grand or a Baldwin upright? We’ll never know. Shortly after taping, the studio was destroyed by rival bandmembers.

There you have it, Saxon’s quotable list of demo discs and fine recordings with which to impress your friends. Remember, it’s not how good the system is, but how little music you can play on it that counts.

Jim Saxon