Back in May, as I was making my way around the Munich Hi-End Show, I spotted something that piqued my interest. Well, lots of things actually, but here I’m talking about a newly-released open reel tape from the confusingly-named STS Digital/Analog. (STS Digital is the original company name since they make digital as well as analogue recordings, but, noting the mis-match, they’ve recently re-branded all of their tape and vinyl releases as STS Analog).
The release in question was titled ‘The World of Heavy Percussion and Large Japanese Drums’ and I’ll tell you why it really grabbed me. (This is where you find out where the nick-name ‘the reel-to-reel rambler’ comes from – I tend to wander slightly off-topic – but hopefully for the musically-inclined, it’s all interesting stuff…).
The point is this: a drum recording was involved in my early conversion to all things hi-fi. One of life’s pivotal moments, you might say. Here’s the back-story… Several decades ago when I lived in Reading and worked as a graphic designer, I was walking through the Harris Arcade which was home to the Reading Cassette and Hi-Fi shop (later renamed the Reading Hi-Fi Centre). I often wandered that way to gaze longingly through the window at the fabulous high-end hi-fi products on display. On this particular day, one of the staff invited me in to have a listen. To this day I clearly recall that the system playing was an original Michell Gyrodek fitted with a Zeta tonearm and Goldbug Briar cartridge, with amplification from Musical Fidelity’s The Preamp II and Studio T, and a pair of Gale’s chrome end-capped 401 loudspeakers. The record he played me was the 1981 direct-to-disc recording, ‘The Sheffield Drum Record’. Created as a hi-fi test record, it featured nothing but drum improvisations. And it totally blew my socks off! From that day forward, my intentions were trained on high-quality hi-fi and I vowed to do whatever it took to have a good system one day. As it turned out, I went much further than that – with a change of career and a lifetime of living/breathing/working/loving hi-fi!
Fast forward several decades at there I am in Munich looking at the cover of this new tape and suddenly that memory comes flooding back to me! The other reason that my interest is piqued is this: while I’ve hugely enjoyed a good number of live ethnic drumming performances, I haven’t really come across any noteworthy recordings. The problem, as I see it, is that if the performance is digitally recorded or reproduced then the tonal palette (or colour gamut if you like) is too monotone to bring the drums and drummers fully to life. Analogue recordings can of course more faithfully portray this tonal palette but the processes involved in LP production tend to lower the dynamic contrast, lessening the weight of the bass while making cymbals and bells sound somewhat harsh, thus compromising the overall result.
So I struck up a conversation with STS Digital’s Fritz de With and was excited to discover that most of the tracks on this album are recordings that he himself made back in the 1990s on a Studer A807 using Schoeps microphones. Venues? Mostly large churches. Excellent! If there’s one thing I love (actually I love lots of things), it’s a great big ecclesiastical space. Regardless of one’s religious views, the acoustic signature of a church is almost always pretty special. Put a drum troupe in there and I’d expect the heavens to applaud. This is all adding up to being a potential auditory epic…
Back in the UK, tape in hand, I open up the smart box (black, and slightly heavier duty than the usual STS tape boxes), thread the tape onto my Studer A812 and press rewind (the tapes are stored tails out, as they should be).
A few moments later and we’re off…
Track 1 is one of just two on the album that weren’t recorded by STS’ Fritz de With himself, but were mastered using his proprietary MWCoding process. The musician is German jazz drummer and composer Jens Düppe, who I haven’t come across before but looking at his website he sure has an impressive CV. As soon as the track begins I’m immediately aware of a lovely space, in which the walls of the recording venue are clearly reflecting the sound back into the room. The piece is one of Düppe’s own compositions, ‘Maestrale’. My guess is that the recording was closely mic’d as the drums pan between the left and right speakers with the bass drum firmly seated in the centre of the soundstage. It’s got a nice, warm jazz feel… sensitive, imaginative drumming as distinct from a bash ‘em hard rock style. It makes a nice opener.
Track 2 is the first of several de With recordings of Circle Percussion, a Dutch-based drum troupe known for exploring drums of the world and for specializing in authentic Japanese taiko drumming, which is what we have on offer here. The piece builds slowly from very quiet beginnings exhibiting a huge depth (foreground to background I mean rather than tonal depth, although there’s that too!). Starting with two drums positioned far back on the left and right, the pace picks right up as more drummers join in, building on the hypnotic rhythm. The huge dynamic range is all the more revealed as the drummers gradually fade back to very quiet, almost to where they began. Small ‘tap-tap-tap’ drum beats produce the next tapestry overlaid with deliciously recorded bells, and then the big (and I mean big, the large taiko drum is around 2 meters in diameter) booms out its low fundamental. This is a splendid example of recording pyrotechnics and a fabulous way to show off your system (or to destroy too-small speakers!).
By the time track 3 fires up, my partner has wandered down from her upstairs office and before I have the chance to ask if the loud music’s disturbing her, she says ‘woah, what’s is this?’ and starts jiving around the room. I don’t blame her. Not even I can sit still when the African drums kick off (and I’m otherwise very good at sitting still). This is another de With recording, of a group called Puls, this time using AKG 414 microphones to record onto de With’s trusty A807. While the first two tracks whet the appetite for sure, are excellent recordings and really show off your audio system, this one has a completely different sound. The complex rhythms are intoxicating but it’s the timbre and the individual tonal character of the drums and the percussive elements that totally seduce me. Everything sounds so organic… the drums really do sound like they’re carved from trees with animal skins stretched over. Shakers sound like beans in the husk of a gourd and contrast wonderfully with the wooden ‘thock’ of what I guess is a balafon. Overlaying all these woody textures are bells that are sweet, shimmering and crystal clear, while faint vocal chanting adds the perfect seasoning to the mix. The track puts me in mind of Peter Gabriel’s fourth album, the one in which he introduced African musicians and rhythms to the western world. This is beautiful, haunting music that quite simply doesn’t last long enough. If this were a sampler tape, I’d buy the full Group Puls album in a flash.
From there we continue on a journey that moves between the familiar sounds of a western drum kit, further selections from Circle Percussion with their taiko-style drumming and more African rhythms, all superbly recorded and reproduced. Two further stand-out tracks for me are by Djembe Group and Pasveer Band.
Djembes come in many sizes and here, in track 6, we hear them at their best from the smallest to a large bass djembe at the rear of the stage. The track builds slowly with the very characterful sound of hands slapping on drum skins. Accompanying bells add a delicious top layer and the whole thing really shows you what tape can do. The dynamic range is huge and the mid-range is brimming with detail. The natural timbres of wood and skin contrast beautifully with the metallic sound of the bells, while the deep bass djembe underpins the powerful sense of being in the midst of a dance of the drums.
Track 8 by Pasveer Band is another real favorite – and came with a bit of a surprise. I was instantly hooked into the rhythm of this piece. It’s complex and multi-layered and yet at the same time very catchy. I could’ve sworn that the band hailed from the Indian subcontinent, so when a bit of web research revealed the truth it nearly threw me off my seat… what sounds to me like traditional Indian drumming turns out to be a Dutch military-style drum band! Ah well, whatever their roots, this is very good listening indeed and another highlight of the album.
One final track I can’t not mention is track 7, the second one on the album that’s mastered by, but not recorded by, de With. Remember the Sheffield Drum Record I mentioned at the beginning that blew my hi-fi socks off? This track, which features Jim Keltner improvising on drums, is taken from that very same record! And it’s testament to the quality of rest of this album that this was by no means the stand-out track for me.
Overall this is highly novel, percussion-only, master-copy release. It’s one which I doubt would work anywhere near as well on vinyl with its more restricted bass power, nor on digital with its limited ‘colour’ gamut. I enjoyed the whole album enormously, both with my hi-fi listening hat and my music-loving one. The music-loving one would love to hear more ‘world music’ drumming (for want of a better term) at this level of quality and authenticity.
Please Fritz, can we have some more Group Puls?
THE WORLD OF HEAVY PERCUSSION AND LARGE JAPANESE DRUMS
STS Analog T6111180