Joe Harley: Both Sides Now

Recordings and playback gear are two different sides of the hi-fi coin, and while many people have made careers creating one or the other, far fewer have made significant contributions to both. Joe Harley is one of those few. A longtime principal with the influential high-end audio manufacturer AudioQuest, he also continues to expand the discography of highly regarded recordings he has produced or helped to remaster, of both new and historically significant music.

Sasha Matson: More than most, you've been involved in both sides of the High End: gear and music, or what some now call hardware and software. Describe that perspective.

Joe Harley: Interesting question, Sasha. One side, of course, involves archiving the original creation in a way that will best present that to listeners. The other involves maximizing the playback of that creation.

On the recording side, we are not so concerned with being absolutely literal, unless we're speaking of classical and some jazz. Even then, we're not always being literal. I think most people would be shocked if you turned off all manner of EQ, effects, and reverb on a jazz session. And they would absolutely be shocked if you did the same on a pop session. I was involved with a Charles Lloyd recording in Los Angeles for ECM some years ago, and someone asked if there was any added reverb on Charles. I said yes. This person then said, "Are you sure? I don't hear it." I reached over and turned it off, and this person said, "Oh! I like it much better with it on!"

The playback side, by contrast, is all about being literal and truthful to the recording at hand. Here you absolutely do not want any editorializing going on, which is, by definition, distortion. We want our speakers, electronics, turntables, cartridges, and cables to, as much as possible, be passive conduits to the original recording.

Being involved on both sides of the coin has given me invaluable insight into the entire recording and playback process.

SM: How long have you been working with Bill Low and his company, AudioQuest?

JH: I first met Bill in 1980, when he was running a by-appointment store called Executive Audio out of his apartment in Santa Monica. I went there to buy a Decca Record Brush and a record weight, as I recall. Bill and I stayed in touch, and sometime in 1981 or 1982 I began to make cables for him as a kind of night job. In January of 1983 I helped with Bill's AudioQuest exhibit [at the Consumer Electronics Show] in Las Vegas. After CES, Bill started calling me regularly, pitching me on the idea of leaving a very good job and joining what was then a two-person startup located in his residence in Corona Del Mar.

SM: What were your musical experiences as a kid?

JH: I started playing drums very early on, from around the age of seven or eight. I was totally obsessed with it, and would play along to the records we had in the house. I was into the Beatles and Stones, of course, but also Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, which was somewhat unusual for an eight-year-old kid in Nebraska.

SM: From when to when did the AudioQuest Music label run?

JH: The initial idea, in 1990, was to just do a recording where all of the connecting cables were from AQ, rather than using the more common generic microphone cables. It was very important to me that the music we recorded be exceptional. I did not want to make an "audiophile sound effects record," if you know what I mean. Kavi Alexander was—and is—a friend of mine who had recorded an album AQ had funded, for his Water Lily Acoustics label. I made arrangements for Kavi to record Robert Lucas, and the resulting record, Usin' Man Blues, won a number of blues awards that year.

From there we were off and running, eventually moving towards recording in some of L.A.'s and New York's finest studios. Artists involved in AudioQuest Music records include Ry Cooder, Terry Evans, Bennie Wallace, Mighty Sam McClain, Mike Stern, John Abercrombie, Grover Washington Jr., Ronnie Earl—and, of course, you, Sasha! (footnote 1) The AQM label continued releasing records up through around 1998 or 1999. We ended up putting out over 60 very well-regarded titles. In addition, there have been a number of reissues of those sessions on LP and XRCD over the last dozen or so years. The music lives on!

SM: What is the current number for your discography as producer—both new recordings and reissues?

JH: The AllMusic guide currently shows 165 entries that combine both original recordings and reissue work for AudioQuest Music, Telarc, ECM, Enja, AudioWave, and GrooveNote. It actually does not include the 130+ Blue Note reissues that Ron Rambach and I have put out on LP for Music Matters Jazz.

SM: Describe a few of your favorite recordings that you've produced—both for the sound and for the music.

JH: In 1995, we did a session with the great soul/R&B singer Terry Evans, at OceanWay in L.A. Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner were in the band. We were recording a track called "Down in Mississippi," and it was simply perfection. You almost get queasy when it's this good—when you know it's the perfect take. You worry about technical issues, or that someone will hit wrong notes. Ry played a slide-guitar solo in this blues that was almost Arabic in nature, so unexpected and so profound. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.


Another was a session at what was then called Cello Studios (now called East/West), also in L.A., with Charles Lloyd. The band included Brad Mehldau, John Abercrombie, Larry Grenadier, and the great drummer Billy Higgins in one of his last recorded performances. We were tracking the tune "Georgia," and again, it was perfection. Billy was incredibly soulful, but so was everyone. For a moment, I flashed back to riding my bicycle to the record store back in 1966 to buy Charles's epic Forest Flower album. I looked out of the control room at what was going down and thought, How did this happen? How did I ever get here? The album is called The Water Is Wide.

Footnote 1: Sasha Matson, Steel Chords / i-5: Works for Pedal Steel Guitar, Harp and Strings (CD, AudioQuest Music AQ-CD1013).