Tam Henderson, Reference Recordings

As fascinating as the design of high-end hardware can be, it goes without question that without musical software (or firmware, as our more computer-minded readers would have it) of an appropriately high standard, the whole business would be pointless. Stereophile's interviews have therefore often featured engineers and producers whose recorded work reveals sound quality to be a major concern. I interviewed Performance Recordings' James Boyk back in Vol.9 No.6; J. Gordon Holt spoke in Vol.10 No.3 with Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga, of Sheffield Lab, and with Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings, about their history-making Moscow sessions; JGH also discussed Brad Miller's and Lou Dorren's Colossus digital project in Vol.10 No.1 and Vol.11 No.4; while last month Dick Olsher interviewed Peter McGrath, responsible for some superb-sounding recordings for Harmonia Mundi USA as well as for his own Audiofon label.

To continue this irregular series of interviews, I met with record producer Tam Henderson at the 1989 WCES. Together with Keith Johnson, Tam has been responsible for a consistently excellent-sounding series of recordings on the Reference Recordings label, including, of course, 1983's awesomely percussive Dafos (RR-12). Perhaps unknown to relatively recent readers of high-end magazines, however, is the fact that Tam is one of the few audio personalities to have crossed the fence dividing the press from those who actually get their hands dirty. Before starting Reference Recordings, he first wrote for the seminal San Francisco magazine Sound Advice, then contributed a number of landmark reviews to The Absolute Sound back in the mid-to-late '70s, including one of the original Jon Iverson–designed Electro Research amplifier, perhaps the progenitor of today's muscle amps from Krell, Mark Levinson, and Jeff Rowland (footnote 1).

When we met, I had intended to ask Tam about a major project Reference Recordings had undertaken to record Fats Waller stride-piano pieces both direct-to-CD and direct-to-DMM-LP. Both processes are hardly straightforward, and Tam and Keith Johnson had expended considerable ingenuity to make them happen. Unfortunately, the test pressings revealed that the Bösendorfer computer-controlled player piano, which was essential to realizing the project, had had a defective damper pedal and the entire project had been, well, not canceled, but at least postponed. I asked Tam, therefore, what had led him to start a record company. Surely it didn't spring, fully formed, from a vacuum...?

Tam Henderson: More or less it did. But if I could go back and change one decision that I made in my life, I would not have gone into the record business. Even though it now appears that it's successful, it's been very, very difficult. But as to how I got into it? Well, my background is not in technical matters at all. Early on in my school days I wanted to go into electrical engineering, but when I got a taste of what that involved I realized it really wasn't for me. My only real love in life has been music, even as a child. I played a little piano, but not enough to ever be professional. I got a very late start in studying music—only at college—and I found out that even though I didn't have a great background in music, I could study music history. I got a degree, but then learned there's nothing much you can do with a BA in music history except perhaps get an MA, then a Ph.D., and then teach music history.

That path didn't seem to be right for me either, I don't think I'm a teacher at heart. So I began to cast about for what I would like to do. And one of the things that appealed to me was to get involved in the quest for music radio. So when I moved to San Francisco in 1964, I was fortunate enough to connect with the very best classical-music FM station. For a number of years I worked in various capacities, mainly as music director, which I enjoyed very much. I was able to decide what music our listeners would hear. It was quite a creative outlet for me, and I got to be very familiar with most of the things that had been recorded, what versions, and so on. It fueled my need for vinyl fixes, so that was a pleasant period. However, then the radio station was sold and the format was changed, so I got into retail record sales for a while. That period is when I started writing for Sound Advice.

Ed Wodenjak, the publisher, had started Crystal Clear Records. It had a short but interesting life, that label. The direct-to-disc process certainly was a fascinating thing to do. I don't know all the reasons for Crystal Clear's demise, but I saw what Ed was doing in the early days when he was just getting it started. I thought I would like to try something similar, but doing music that appealed to me. I had just sold a house at that point and had a few extra dollars, and instead of putting the money into another piece of real estate, decided to put it into starting a record company. Knowing almost nothing about the technicalities of how records are made, I just jumped right in. No other record label would have hired me, of course, because I had no experience—it's been a long, slow learning process.

John Atkinson: Did Keith Johnson work with you right from the start?

Henderson: Not at that time. We did our first four recordings with another engineer, Ed Long, who now writes for Audio. At that time, he was developing a microphone technique that later became what's now known as PZM. He used B&K capsules on a flat sort of platform that you could put on the floor. The first four recordings were done with that technique, the two mikes spaced 12' apart, and I found out in a hurry once our tapes had been made that it was close to impossible to cut a phonograph record from them. Because of all of the random phase information, the vertical modulation of the groove was just horrendous. Especially when there was anything in the bass.

So I decided not to pursue that as an ongoing technique, particularly after I'd met Keith Johnson and heard his work. He hadn't done much in the way of commercial recordings at that time. He'd done some reproducing piano recordings for the Klavier label in Los Angeles, but most of his work was for live concerts and friends—that sort of thing. But it was clear that his recordings had a clarity and a focus and a live quality that were enormously appealing. And he also had a much better tape recorder than we had been working with, obviously. (That machine is somewhat legendary.) So we decided to give it a try with Keith.

Footnote 1: No relation to Stereophile's long-time Web Monkey Jon Iverson.