Label heads—those at the very highest positions of power at music companies. To anyone who's spent time near the record business, they're a mythical breed. Like gnomes. Or dragons. Often, it's their vision that spells success or failure for the label they run. And what they say goes. Over the years, many a legendary creature has assumed the title: Goddard Lieberson, Clive Davis, Mo Ostin, to name just a few of those who have survived and prospered. The list of those who did not is at least twice as long.
Our meeting was propitious and totally unexpected. The locus was Los Angeles' Sheraton Gateway Hotel last May, on which we had all descended for Home Entertainment 2006. As a contributor to Stereophile's Show blog, my assignment was as liberal as they come: Go where you are drawn, listen as you will, and record your impressions.
Iván Fischer, founder and conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, has performed with many major orchestras and recorded for a number of major labels, most significantly with Philips, from 1995 to 2004. Fischer/BFO made the first multichannel orchestral recording for SACD, which Philips used as a demonstration disc for their first SACD players. I still treasure that disc—it demonstrates many of the advantages of the medium with a wide and varied program—but it has never been commercially released.
"This won't be a short job," says Arcam's president, John Dawson (footnote 1). He's talking about the challenge of engineering the next generation of Arcam home-theater products to embrace the new high-resolution video formats. It's possibly the biggest technical challenge English company Arcam has faced since, almost exactly 30 years ago, Dawson and his original business partner, Chris Evans, launched their first product—an unpretentious, 35W hi-fi amplifier called the A&R Cambridge A60.
There are many colorful characters, many high-profile movers and shakers, in high-end audio, but there are only a few whose influence extends far beyond the promotion of their own brands. One of this exalted and mighty handful is Robert Stuart, chairman and technical director of the UK's Meridian Audio.
Before I even turn on the recorder, Willie Nile is telling me his theory of how the granite under Manhattan Island conducts electricity, which accounts for the perceptible charge that many people feel makes New York City so special. It's also what draws artists like flies, none more passionate than singer-songwriter Nile, who's personally contributed a few volts during his years in NYC.
David Chesky, whose company has been making superior recordings for nearly 20 years now, isn't from the engineering side of the business. He's talent—a pianist who sometimes performs on his label, a composer of classical and jazz selections integral to its catalog, and an arranger as well.
Firms that specialize in architectural acoustics usually concentrate on the big jobs—churches, schools, and auditoriums. Rives Audio is unusual in that they specialize in "small-room" acoustics, for residential listening rooms and home theaters. Rives is unusual in another way: they consult on a nationwide and even international basis.
The first thing you notice about Walter Sear's legendary Manhattan studio is that it feels so darn comfortable. Sear Sound doesn't have a wall of gold records, gleaming million-dollar consoles, or the latest high-resolution digital workstations, but a quick stroll around the three studios reveals a treasure trove of tube and analog professional gear: a pair of Sgt. Pepper–era Studer recorders plucked from EMI's Abbey Road studios; an early Modular Moog synthesizer Sear built with Bob Moog; and a collection of 250 new and classic microphones.
Editor's Note: In 1954, a New York writer and teacher reinvented the world of audio with the modest-looking Acoustic Research AR-1 loudspeaker. A small fraction of the size of the behemoths that were then de rigeur for the reproduction of bass frequencies, Edgar Villchur's loudspeaker went as low with less distortion. Perhaps more importantly, the AR-1 pioneered both the science of speaker design and the idea that a low-frequency drive-unit could not be successfully engineered without the properties of the enclosure being taken into account.
Jim Fosgate fits the category of Classic American Inventor to a T. This softspoken, quietly intense man has earned 18 patents and founded three successful electronics companies. In the late 1970s, he pulled out of the car audio business to follow his quadraphonic bliss, and designed the Fosgate Tate 101, arguably the finest quad decoder of the era. He also created the best-selling matrix surround processor of all time, Dolby's Pro Logic II, and in 2003 won an Emmy for the Development of Surround Sound for Television. He now serves as a senior executive consultant for Fosgate Audionics, a division of the Rockford Corporation.
Tom Jung's career has been dotted with numbers. In 1969, he and a partner founded Sound 80, a Minneapolis recording studio named by an advertising wizard who had previously conjured up the appellation Cure 81 for a Hormel ham, supposedly while sipping Vat 69 scotch. Some years later, engineers from another Midwestern company with a numeral in its name, 3M, stopped by with an experimental tape recorder that also employed digits. Those zeros and ones proved critical to the recordings Jung went on to engineer and produce at his next company, Digital Music Products, better known as DMP.
Consider the fate of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century astronomer who challenged Ptolemy's notion of Earth being the center of a finite universe—and in doing so went head to head with the church of Rome. Bruno's scholarly diligence and fearlessness were rewarded not with fame, riches, or accolades from his colleagues, but with a hot-lead enema, after which he was burned at the stake. Next heretic in line, step right up, please.
Maybe Dan D'Agostino was destined to develop and build a line of products distinguished by their sheer might. After all, he grew up just blocks from a natural phenomenon synonymous with power: Niagara Falls. Even today, when the 56-year-old D'Agostino returns to his boyhood home to visit his parents, he enjoys pulling on a pair of shorts and going for a long run in the adjacent park, which resounds with the Falls' unrelenting thunder.
The Pennsylvania Gazette documented an early connection between music and an American named Winey when, in 1759, it listed for sale as part of an estate "a middle sized organ, having eight stops." Interested parties were directed to one Jacob Winey, a Philadelphia merchant.