SOUND TRAV­ELS

Australian HIFI - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by greg bor­row­man

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.

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