Nathan Haines is one of New Zealand’s most successful jazz exports. He’s had multiple albums released in the UK and Europe and has played at Tokyo Blue Note and Ronnie Scott’s. He also has a fine collection of esoteric hi-fi components that he uses both for work and for listening pleasure...
Nathan Haines is one of New Zealand’s most successful jazz exports. He’s had multiple albums released in the UK and Europe and has played many festivals and clubs worldwide including the Tokyo Blue Note and Ronnie Scott’s in London (where he lived on and off for more than two decades). He also has a fine collection of esoteric hi-fi components that he uses for both work and for listening pleasure...
Nathan has had two certified Gold album sales in New Zealand (‘Shift Left’ and ‘Squire for Hire’) and has earned his place as a musical icon during his 25-year career in music. Nathan has also collaborated and made an album with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. His direct-to-vintage-twotrack tape all-analogue album ‘The Poet’s Embrace’ was released recently in the UK and Germany on the Warner Classics and Jazz label and is considered a high point in Nathan’s musical output. You can also purchase all his albums digitally in a variety of formats, including high-res FLAC at http://www.nathanhaines.com/disography/
Currently based in Auckland, New Zealand, following the birth of his son, Zoot, he’s been working on his eleventh solo album, recorded and produced in his home studio. Nathan has a keen interest in vintage recording equipment and instruments, and in high-end hi-fi. ‘ We may live in a digital world but I like to hang onto the analogue aspects,’ he says. ‘ I use both analogue and digital formats in recording, and when I am DJ-ing. Even when I make a 100 per cent analogue recording, in the end it is always converted to digital to be listened to by consumers.’
Australian Hi-Fi’s Greg Borrowman caught up with Nathan via email exchange for this instalment of our regular Sound Travels column…
AHF: When did you first become interested in audio equipment?
NH: My dad had a decent turntable and cassette deck plus a good collection of jazz vinyl when I was growing up. So I guess that sowed the seeds of listening to music intimately and introduced me to the idea of listening to an album from start to finish. From a very early age he would sit me down and get me to concentrate on the music. After leaving home I dabbled in hi-fi but as I travelled a lot and was living in London I didn’t buy anything too highend. At that time of my life I was going out every night and gigging all the time! However it wasn’t until about 10 years ago when a friend built me a nice valve amp and found me some Celestion Ditton 15s to run with it that I bought a very original Sondek LP12 from a friend and really got to grips with audio nirvana and the joys of getting inside the music. I loved that LP12 with a passion—until I got my Garrard 401 that is!
AHF: Can you describe the evolution of your hi-fi system?
NH: Well after that first decent system I described, I bought and sold quite a bit of gear. I discovered Ortofon SPU cartridges after I bought my Garrard 401 and SME 3012 as they came highly recommended for that turntable and arm. I then went down the moving-coil route with a mono CG 25 Ortofon as I have a lot of mono original pressings which are to me the best way to experience albums from that magic period of the mid 1950s to the late 1960s. I tried out lots of different step-up transformers and phono stages but I’ve arrived at the Perreaux Audient VP3 which is a lovely neutral-sounding phono stage that ticks all the boxes for me—plus it lets me run two turntables (or arms… or cartridges) at the same time. If I should choose to go LOMC or some other form of audio dark arts the Perreaux VP3 is right there with me as it has a plethora of adjustable options.
AHF: Why would you want two different turntables running multiple cartridges?
NH: Well if you look at the history of recorded music you’ll see a lot of variations and differences in presentation have gone on since the 1930s. Mono, then stereo, then the advance of recording equipment (multitrack recording as opposed to 2-track and 3-track machines) plus the ability to overdub and mixdown separate tracks post-recording meant that within a few short years recordings sounded very different.
One turntable and one cartridge cannot do all of these recordings justice.
AHF: Where do you think your system is going, or has it arrived?
NH: I’m pretty happy with the ‘SPU sound’—the SL15 was really a professional studio cartridge and not available to the public but I really like it. I’ve run a few different Denon cartridges (modded 103s and some others) but the SPU has a romance to it that suits the music I mostly listen to. Amp-wise I do love valves—I think to get the sound I like from transistor I’d have to investigate a Nelson Pass amp. I keep trying other valve amps but I find I always return to my Sonic Frontiers integrated… however I did spend a packet on original 1960s Mullards for it, and that transformed the sound. I just bought a Fisher X100C recently which for the money is a lovely wee valve amp and looks smashing. It’s good for a second system—though my second system in the kitchen is actually an Aracam AR60 amplifier and the matching T21 tuner with some matching Arcam 2 speakers. I like listening to classical music on the radio (like Charles Bukowski). So maybe the Fisher could be the basis of a third system. I am very happy with my Spendor SP-1 speakers. They do it for me! I was running a pair of Yamaha NS-690s for some years, but I always thought they were a bit analytical and bass-shy, which the Spendors are not. Of course I have a completely different set-up for my studio, which is for work.
AHF: You also have a pretty cool car audio system, don’t you?
NH: I own a very nice Blaupunkt cassette deck in my 1994 Citroen XM—I record vinyl straight to my 1970s Nakamichi tape deck to be played in my car.
This is a 100 per cent analogue process and I love that, as a lot of my day is taken up with music in the digital domain. I work using Logic computer software for writing music even though I use and record ‘real’ instruments. I find myself constantly moving between the analogue and digital worlds.
AHF: What audio equipment do you use in your home studio?
NH: I’m running a 1980s Perreaux 180 watt per channel 3000B—it’s a beast of a power amp—cosmetically it’s pretty ugly with a home-made metal top plate—to power a pair of large Technics SB-7 studio monitors and it does the job with aplomb. I’m also running classic Yamaha NS-10 studio monitors (a matched pair from the 80s) which many studios use as their reference monitors. These are not ‘nice-sounding’ monitors—quite the opposite! However they are very flat and are an industry standard and useful for translating what you may be hearing in your mixdown in your studio to what people end up hearing in their car, in their home or these days even on their mobile phone! My main near-field studio monitors are some lovely new Neumann KH-120s. They are amazing! Neumann is better-known for their incredible microphones (of which I own several) but they’ve really upped the monitor stakes with the KH-120s. The front end of my home studio is the Prism Orpheus DAC, which is a high-end digital converter. It’s a serious bit of kit and is very neutral when it comes to recording instruments and making sure they sound natural. I use Logic software for recording and mixdown but I have some nice hand-built valve preamps by Ekadek. Having some vintage circuitry when recording into the Prism Orpheus certainly adds flavour.
AHF: What’s your favourite piece of audio equipment at the moment, something that you wouldn’t sell?
NH: That would have to be my Garrard 410 with its SME 3012 arm. I will never ever part with that turntable. It sounds amazing and looks fantastic. I love the original SME plinth too—though I had to do a tonne of work to stop the rumble!
AHF: You’re obviously a huge fan of vinyl. Many audiophiles who’ve switched formats—LP to CD, CD to HD, HD to streaming—now wish they could turn back the clock…
NH: A lot of people sold their record collections 25 years ago and went over to CD. Perhaps that was not such a great idea in retrospect. I am personally paying more now for original pressings of jazz records than ever before. The resurgence of vinyl has pushed up second-hand prices. But back to CDs— in fact a lot of early CDs had inferior versions of the original recordings on them, and were ‘way down the evolutionary chain from the original master tape—copies of copies of copies. The early CD versions of the Miles Davis classic ‘Kind of Blue’ released by Warner in the 1980s were woeful-sounding pieces of crap compared to the 1959 mono vinyl versions on the Columbia label. When the iPod surfaced several years ago all I said to myself was ‘Why would I convert all my lovely big WAV and AIFF flies to crappy MP3s? And still it continues…’
AHF: What do you see as your next hi-fi purchase or upgrade?
NH: I am in the process of modding the Garrard to take another arm for my mono cartridges so I don’t have to keep swapping out the headshell. I’ve done the measure- ments and I have a good friend in who is an expert woodworker who is making the new top plate in wood for me. Whenever I buy a piece of vintage gear (which inevitably features wood somewhere) I get Peter to restore the wood or veneer sympathetically. AHF: What’s the most memorable pair of speakers (or system as a whole) you’ve ever heard? NH: I think the first time I heard a pair of electrostatics in the late 1980s it literally blew my mind! I’d like to go down that road some day but I think I’d go Tannoy Reds or Golds before I went electrostatics—plus you’re looking at $5k or so for good electrostatics, and I think I’d rather spend the money on buying original pressing vinyl albums. There are so many albums I have yet to hear. AHF: Do you use specific tracks when comparing audio components? And if so, what are they? NH: I guess if you are doing a very analytical A–B comparison then it’s good to use something very familiar and very well-engineered—anything recorded at the Columbia 30th Street Studio from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s is fantastic—plus of course the inevitable Steely Dan. Their records are so well-engineered it’s ridiculous. Also anything engineered by Bruce Swedien—he did all the big Quincy Jones records in the 1970s and 80s and he reached an engineering zenith. If I was testing a system for more modern listening (think music that goes below 70Hz with subs) then anything produced by J-Dilla is great—though I really enjoyed the Kaytranada album last year and his use of low frequencies. I certainly gave the Technics SB7s in my studio a good run for about six months after I got his debut album! AHF: What do you look for when you’re evaluating the sound you’re hearing from a hi-fi system? NH: For me it’s about getting back to the original sound of the recordings as they sounded straight from the master tapes in the studio. I am not into hi-fi- per se or equipment that flatters the recording or gives you multiple listening options like those digital amplifiers that offer jazz/stadium/club/movie settings that are really just
Several years ago, all I said to myself was ‘Why would I convert all my lovely big WAV and AIFF flies to crappy MP3s? And still it continues…’
eq and/or reverb added to the signal. Why would you want that?
AHF: What genre of music do you listen to mostly and who are some of your favourite artists?
NH: I listen to a lot of jazz and Brazilian music from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, plus classic rock by the Beatles, Bowie and the Beach Boys… well, just ‘Pet Sounds’ really… all of it on vinyl and most of the time in mono: Though of course that died out in the 1970s. Like anyone I go through phases. I was on a Nick Drake phase recently and bought his very last album to go with the other two I had. Sometimes when I read about an artist it jump-starts me to hit discogs and get some original albums. I love well-recorded classical music from Columbia (I have a lot of Glen Gould original Columbia mono pressings) but I also listen to a lot of underground club music from the 70s and 80s as that influences the records I make. I have been DJ-ing for more than 20 years and learnt on vinyl, and my DJ sets reflect my love of great, well-produced, well-written and well-engineered music. I don’t stream. I like ownership in the physical domain. I like the fact that I’ve tracked down that particular copy and that I listen to that actual copy. I still own a Weather Report album I remember buying after school one day in the mid-80s. Streaming is useful but ultimately unsatisfying and cold—like a sexual union with a robot.
AHF: What would be your ‘desert island’ music albums if you could only choose, say, three works?
NH: Kind of Blue – Miles Davis; Crescent – John Coltrane; and Revolver – The Beatles.
AHF: How would you describe the sound you’re getting from your current system?
NH: Lush, warm, involving, all-encompassing, romantic, detailed at low volume, realistic, life-like and non-fatiguing. Most of all BLOODY GOOD FUN!
AHF: In what way does music affect your life, your emotions and the way you feel?
NH: Music IS my life. I am a musician and I listen to music non-stop as well as performing and writing and playing music. This in turn informs the records I make. The whole reason I got into investigating hi-fi and learning about it was so I could start hearing what the engineers were doing. It’s been a long learning process but I get more enjoyment out of my home listening set-up than I have ever got in my life. When that needle hits the record I know I’m going to be transformed to another place.
I may even get a great idea or an inspiration which will influence the next track I’m working on. I think that one reason I am buying more second-hand vinyl now than I ever have before is probably because I feel like my system is at a place where my ears and heart and mind are at one. I don’t hear my system most of the time—I just hear the music.
AHF: Where do you see the high-end audio industry heading in the future?
NH: Well I guess streaming is the future for most people, but I also see small labels doing limited runs on vinyl for people who want to own things. I’m a collector—I love reading real books, I love putting on a vinyl album and listening to the whole album. I don’t have a remote control and I don’t mind getting up and changing the record after 20 minutes… and I put up with the vagaries of owning and running vintage equipment (much to the chagrin of my wife—however she’s a DJ too and LOVES music so it’s not so much chagrin, as more like eye-rolling when a piece of equipment breaks down and I’m off to see my tech to get it fixed!
I see my record collection as something I can return to again and again. You can’t return to a Spotify list again and again. Well you could, but where’s the romance in that? I’m always finding new tracks buried amongst the many albums I have. That’s the beauty of it—you can always find something new in your own collection. It’s fun even trying to find something sometimes!
AHF: Where would you like the audio industry to go or evolve to?
NH: I think most people who read this article will think I’m old-fashioned because I love valve amps and turntables and vinyl. However as I produce and make music in the digital domain as well as utilising acoustic and analog technologies, I would like to see a continuation of an amalgamation of both.
I use UAD plug-ins for my productions and this is a perfect blend of the new digital technologies with incredibly realistic simulated analog processing— plus of course I use my actual real analog vintage equipment and instruments when I’m recording as well. So for home nonprofessional listening I reckon there is some cool stuff to be done with blending these technologies.
I am interested in producing some small run bespoke audio equipment and have been in discussions with some people. Nothing has got off the ground yet, but it’s something I am passionate about… so watch this space!
Oh, and if there are any audio manufacturers reading this who would like to collaborate, then I’m all ears.
Nathan’s direct-to-vintage-two-track tape all-analogue album ‘The Poet’s Embrace’ was released recently in the UK and Germany on the Warner Classics and Jazz label and is considered a high point in Nathan’s musical output.
One of the Neumann microphones Nathan uses when recording, with his Yamaha NS-10 and Neumann KH-120 monitors in the background.