Listening #29 Page 2

Origin Live's Advanced motor-drive kit had a tough act to follow: The Rega P9 is the best turnkey record player I know, having the kind of purposeful, involving sound that seldom fails to hold my attention, regardless of the type of music being played. Nevertheless, the DC drive distinguished itself from the start, in mostly very positive ways. The first cut I tried was the pretty "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles," from Clear Spot (1972), by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (Reprise MS 2115), and with the addition of the new motor and power supply, it sounded as if I were playing an entirely different pressing of the record. Most notably, and with apologies for its obviousness in an audio-weenie sense, the electric bass had noticeably more depth and weight with the OL kit in place, without any penalties in apparent bass speed. At the other end of the spectrum, Zoot Horn Rollo's mandolin playing was brought to the fore somewhat, and seemed more purposeful and right. Surface noise was unchanged, one way or the other, as was the overall sense of drama, which was pretty good with both setups. The only thing I didn't like was that, with the OL kit, the sounds of instruments and voices seemed just a little bit plasticky to me: Sounds were just a bit too smooth, and somewhat lacking in texture and natural grain.

I heard the same sorts of things with classical LPs, such as István Kertész and the London Symphony's recording of the Brahms Serenade No.2 (London CS 6594): plucked notes in the lower strings had more weight with the DC drive, and woodwind lines seemed to hold my attention a bit better. Yet once again, the changeover to the OL kit made the sound a bit lacking in texture. The flutes sounded "breathier" and more forceful when the Rega P9 still had its AC motor.

Substituting the Ultra motor-drive unit for the Advanced and adding OL's transformer upgrade ($260 if bought with the kit), I heard the most remarkable sense ever, this side of open-reel tape, of musical sounds emerging from utter deep-black nothingness. Playing the Tony Rice Unit's recording of "Blackberry Blossom" (Manzanita, Rounder 0092), the OL kit enhanced the ways the various string instruments came out of nowhere to command my attention. And Jascha Horenstein's indispensable recording of Mahler's Symphony 3 (Nonesuch HB-73023, with its lovable katzenjammer cover) took on a near-cinematic quality, instrumental groups entering and exiting the stage with more drama than usual. From the forceful first notes of the unaccompanied horns that open the Mahler, it seemed that the Ultra version of the DC drive unit restored some, though not all, of the texture I'm used to hearing from LPs on the LP12.

Okay: Origin Live had my attention. And I knew their DC motor and top two power supplies were destined for a spin with one of my Linns.

But first I tried an experiment. You've probably already read, in these pages or elsewhere, that when Rega developed their own motor drive for the P9, they demonstrated that the person doing the setup can feel when the power-supply adjustments are dialed in for each individual motor simply by holding the motor while trimming the phase angle and voltage levels. (And so it is that, with every P9 sold, the motor and power supply are wedded to each other. If one goes bad, the other must be replaced as well.) When I removed the OL DC motor from the Rega, before putting the original AC motor back in place, I decided to compare them using the same approach.

With the Rega's own motor connected to its individually tuned AC supply and with the Origin Live motor connected to its DC supply, I felt for a difference. The Rega's motor exhibited the typical AC motor-torque surge on startup and with each change in speed, but soon settled in to a smooth and subtle whisper of a feeling. Impressive. But apart from an almost imperceptible change in momentum during startup and speed changes, the DC motor felt as if it wasn't running at all: Only the spinning of the pulley gave it away. Even then, the pulley is so well machined that I couldn't tell by looking; I had to touch it just to see if it was working.

In other words, there was no comparison, at least on that basis.

The Linnchpin
Which brings me, finally, to the Linn. I decided to try the DC motor on the LP12 I usually run with a Linn Lingo power supply and Linn Ekos tonearm, primarily because that was the one that happened to be out and in use at the time. I also felt that the Ekos would be a better mate for the Origin Live setup, because the Naim Aro tonearm performs best when its electrical ground is tied to a single point inside the turntable along with that of its complementary power supply—and that wouldn't seem to be possible here, at least at first jot.

What I found with the Linn was similar to what I found with the Rega. Skipping ahead to the setup with the Ultra power supply and upgraded transformer—if anything, the distinctions between the two levels was more pronounced on the LP12 than on the P9—I thought the DC version of the Linn sounded at least as big and dramatic and purposeful as the AC version, and actually improved on it in one way: Again, the silences between notes were blacker and altogether more silent with the OL setup. And I don't mean seemed—I mean were. The difference, though subtle, was plain to hear.

But for all that, the Origin Live kit never gave me that last bit of texture and touch that I get with the Lingo—or, for that matter, with the Naim Armageddon. The way the LSO strings under Josef Krips dig into the opening of Schumann's Symphony 1 (London STS 15019) was consistently real and utterly thrilling with the AC motor; the DC kit, even under the best of circumstances, seemed to fill in the pores, so to speak, and made that and other things sound too smooth and featureless for my taste.

Given that the DC approach lowers the turntable's apparent noise floor, and given how I've proved to my own satisfaction that the DC motor-plus-drive generates considerably less vibrational energy than its AC counterpart, some people might say (footnote 4) that the stuff I think is texture is a noisy artifact and nothing more. That may seem logical enough, but after a great deal of careful listening I remain unconvinced. As always, what count are your own approach to prioritizing those performance aspects and your own conclusions as to the merits of these products.

Finding those answers isn't terribly hard, at least partly because Origin Live's return policy is so liberal: If you don't like it, you don't have to keep it. For the enthusiast who owns an easy-to-service deck, and who values that sort of master-tape purity of presentation, the OL kit's recommendability goes way up, bordering on no-brainer territory. If you had a moderately priced player such as, say, a Rega Planar 25 or a Roksan Radius and were beginning to get the upgrade bug, the $540 Origin Live Advanced kit, in particular, could make for an interesting, high-value move. And while the OL's mix of strengths won't coax this Linn owner into giving up either the Lingo or the Armageddon for it, the person who's getting his or her first LP12 up and running—especially a second-hand deck—might want to consider even the most expensive Origin Live motor/drive configuration as a cost-effective option.

Clarence redux
For my first contribution to Stereophile's annual "Records To Die For" compilation (February 2003) I chose two very different albums: Martin Newell's The Greatest Living Englishman and the Kentucky Colonels' Appalachian Swing! Both have been in and out of print over the years, but while the former has never been absent from the market for more than a year at a time, the latter has been unavailable for close to a decade—until now.

Thanks to the efforts of reissue producer Sam Passamano, Jr., and mastering engineer Steve Hoffman, Appalachian Swing! is once again available on CD (S&P SPR-717). Nothing I have to say between now and the end of the column could possibly do this great album justice, so if you're choosing between reading the rest of this page and putting down the magazine so you can order the disc from your favorite purveyor of same...well, let's say I won't be offended.

If you're still here: The majority of hardcore bluegrass fans—and virtually all bluegrass guitar players—know this 1964 recording inside and out. Appalachian Swing! is the "Rocket 88" of bluegrass guitar, because it's among the first bluegrass recordings in which a solo guitarist earned equal prominence with the mandolin and banjo players on the basis of speed, tone, and volume level (no mean feat when the instrument is simply too large to project higher frequencies with the same ease as a small one; think tweeter), not to mention melodic and rhythmic inventiveness. Before Appalachian Swing!, guitarists also had to struggle against the perception of what a bluegrass ensemble was all about, given that Bill Monroe, the father of the genre, cast such a long shadow—and unless I'm mistaken, there isn't a single recorded guitar solo in the entire catalog of Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys (footnote 5).

The Colonels' guitarist was the late Clarence White, who formed the group in the early 1960s with his older brother, the mandolinist Roland White. Partly because the brothers were capable of almost endlessly creative musical dialogs, and partly owing to a stroke of luck disguised as a setback—when the group entered the studio to record the album, producer Richard Bock told them to skip the vocals and do all their numbers as instrumentals—Appalachian Swing! stood as a spare, cool signpost for every young player to come: This is the core repertoire, and this is how it goes . . .

I've never owned or even heard the original LP of Appalachian Swing!, but I have a copy of the CD version that Rounder Records released in the early 1990s—and which, it turns out, was not only mastered from a DAT copy, but somehow had its left and right channels reversed by mistake. Tarnation!

The new S&P reissue definitely sounds cleaner than the Rounder. As to the channel swapping . . . well, I can't say for sure. The Rounder sounds righter to me, but that may be just because I'm used to it and have listened to it so many times.

Which Appalachian Swing! is right? Did Rounder make a mistake when they remastered the album, or had they in fact corrected one? When I asked Roland White, who teaches mandolin and guitar in Nashville and who continues to perform and record, he said he hasn't had time to compare the two—"and anyway, it never occurred to me to see who is in the left and who is in the right!" Aw, what do musicians know about records . . .

So that's where I'll have to leave it. If you have any taste at all for string-band music in general or bluegrass in particular, failing to immediately buy a copy of Appalachian Swing! would be nothing short of criminal. If you already have the Rounder CD, buy this one anyway—it sounds clearer, and the tireless John Delgatto, who knows more about Clarence White's recording career than anyone else, has supplied good new liner notes and some never-before-seen photos. Finally, even if you own the original World Pacific Records LP, buy the S&P CD so you can write in and tell me which one is "correct."

Footnote 4: Sorry. In a recent, admittedly half-hearted effort at fairness and balance, I've been trying to watch Fox News. At least its jeer value is off the chart.

Footnote 5: The most prominent guitar line I know of on a Bill Monroe record is the G-run that Lester Flatt plays at the opening of "Heavy Traffic Ahead," from 1946.