John R.T. Davies

Interviewed by Joel Slotnikoff

What kind of equipment do you yourself use both for transferring and for listening?

It has long been suggested that I write a book. . . but the information still materialises at a speed which might be likened to that of computer technology which carries the proposition that: by the time you've got it home and plugged it in, it is already obsolete! Continuing investment in available new technology is no longer financially practicable with advancing years and largely my equipment is extremely basic and, in evolution, inexpensive. Much of my work is done in analogue form in which domain I have developed methods not applicable to the digital. . . rather than a case of old dog and new tricks. Turntable: Goldring-Lenco GL75 (mounted not as the manufacturer intended) which offers near-universal speed/pitch facilitating adjustment usually to "New Philharmonic" C=522/523 c/s or (for brass bands in earlier recordings) "Old Philharmonic" C=537 c/s. . . or, rarely, "Steinway" C=517 c/s. Pick-up arm: Linn Ittok 12" (whose rigidity--pivot to stylus--allows opportunity of un-smeared upper frequency separation) with Cartridge: Shure M-44 (not, perhaps, the greatest tracing ability but an indestructible work-horse) and others for specialist purposes. Pre-amplifier of my own design (whose attributes could fill another chapter). Main (monitor) amplifier: Leak TL12 (outstanding at its time more than half a century ago and even more so with the introduction of some more modern components). Speakers: 10" Golden Warfedale (advantage of single-source reproduction despite 70-year-old design and range short-comings. . . There are others which I would prefer but which require more space than available). Analogue tape: Telefunken M-24 (of which I have three). This machine, dating from c. 1960 and now needing considerable "nursing" is not only a fine recorder but is more importantly the greatest editing machine of its kind. More recently added are various digital items. Still an important adjunct is a gadget which I call "the decerealiser" which enables me to remove snap-crackle-and-pop as well as modifying unwanted noise in the analogue domain; its function, based on the principle of violin string and bow, would require another couple of chapters to extoll!

Could you talk about your work as a sound engineer?

Discussion of recording methods, equalisation, cross-overs could occupy an entire second book. To talk about my work as a sound engineer might be difficult; ask a centipede in which order it moves its legs and it will inevitably fall over!

What recommendations do you have about styli?

Some of your questions are perennials such as dimensions and shapes of styli appropriate to particular makes of record. There ARE NO useful RULES although there may be a few guiding generalities; experiment must be the order of each day and experience and perception will indicate direction. There seems to have been no standardisation in the creation of cutting styli until after WW2 and, even then, variables of accident as well as particle adhesion, material (of both cutter and matrix) and temperature will affect a finished groove to be encountered by the tracing stylus. So where do we start? Even two pressings of ostensibly the same recording may be needful of differing treatment. Discussion of the advantages of shapes and cants would require a whole chapter!

What are your feelings on how 78s should be transferred?

In transfer and reproduction of the modulation content of a gramophone record groove, the variable information must needs be tailored to the peculiarities of the subsequent processing. Choices must be made concerning not only the programme but also the character of the attendant noise. . . and their subsequent separation for clarification of the former and reduction of the latter whether by quantification or simple perception. All of this will give rise to style. . . and each engineer has his own. . . he may seek substantial noise reduction at the expense of (instrumental) separation and peripheral "air" or he may colour tonality to alter the perceived spatial position of noise at the expense of realism; he may ignore the noise element in favour of realism, separation and "life". . . or any of these and others in combination. Just as you might read a scathing review of a current stage production while knowing that your own opinion is usually unlike that of the reviewer and see and enjoy the performance, so record-buyers will favour the style of a sound engineer over that of another. My own style is based in the presentation of maximum feasible information. . . and let the recipient have the choice. . . !

What are some of your favorite methods of cleaning?

Part and parcel of transfer must be preparatory work--whether simple (or not-so-simple) cleaning or physical repair. . . another three chapters! Generally, repairs should be durable but not irreversible. Generally, dry and clean is preferable to application of unguents and lubricants--many of which will change the nature of the original surface material and cause insidious and premature destruction.

Do you have any protegˇs you're grooming for after you retire?

Although, a couple of years ago, my ears were routinely tested and found still to be able to hear to 14 Kc/s, I am acutely conscious of their deterioration and less-than-confident of my fitness to continue my engineering work. I console myself a little in that most of my listeners are in worse shape than am I--but I have always hoped that my transfers would be complete enough that they would serve as source material for future generations. "Shellac" (a bit of a misnomer actually) doesn't last forever and I have a selfish (?) interest in preserving for future generations the sounds which have brought me a lifetime of pleasure. Yes, I do have a "protegˇ" upon whom I lavished some two and a half years of attention and to whom I passed as much of my information and experience as I was able. His name is Ted Kendall. . . and, while I had hoped that he might work with me, he is doing excellent work on his own. . . dammit!, he's better at it than I am!. . . and I am much pleased.

You used to own the Ristic label. Can you tell me about that?

The first "Ristic" reissue appeared in 1949, the penultimate in 1972 in which year the onset of a particularly vicious variety of "migrainous neuralgia" caused me to abandon marketing in favour of engineering.

How does working with a major label differ from working with a small or independent label?

[I prefer to engineer] for small enthusiast-run labels/companies rather than for the larger companies who tend to alter my work to align it to their own style. Larger companies also seem desultory about paying their bills (I still await, despite reminders, payment from Sony in New York for a job delivered eight months ago). While I will happily work on compilations submitted by my various small-company clients, I do endeavour to persuade in the non-duplicative chronological or discographical approach and to encourage the inclusion of appropriate material which has hitherto not seen the light of day. Such companies enjoy, at no cost, the run of my not-inconsiderable collection; dissemination of the music I love being of paramount importance to me. My other label "Bateau Chinois" (double translation: "Junk") largely served as a small-run ancillary.

Currently, copyright laws in the UK and Europe permit reissue of material that can't legally be done in the US. What are your feelings on that? Some [copyright laws] are sensible. . . others manifestly NOT. How often has an important patent been suppressed? There may lurk in the recesses of memory a material (more, actually, an additive) which could endow a vinyl disc with enviable properties of near-indestructible surface allied to a very flexible, stress-free, pressing completely devoid of any retainable static charge. In manufacture the reject rate was lower than that of conventional pressings. As I understand, the patent was acquired jointly by RCA and CBS who suppressed it on the grounds that it would render every dealer's stock unsaleable over night! Among my collection of gramophone industry examples, I have a Polymax pressing onto which the content of an ash-tray may be emptied. . . and then blown off with a light exhalation to present a clean record on the turntable! The surface is miraculously quiet and suitable for reproduction of sounds which are thought to be possible in the digital domain alone. I've no axe to grind in the matter of reward to composers, lyricists, publishers and other instigators although I would question copyright or patent extending beyond a single lifetime. That Eubie Blake should live decently until the age of one hundred years on royalties from "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Memories Of You" is entirely just. However, I would challenge any right of suppression through legal control. I have never knowingly infringed a copyright but have on a few occasions informed owners of my wish to do so and, interestingly, have received blessing! I do contend, though, that the music which I have committed to reissue (78, microgroove, CD) belongs BY RIGHT to those who have the capacity to appreciate it. Whether or not such a viewpoint is actually LEGAL, it is certainly naturally LAWFUL.

Many people may not be aware that you've had a long career as a musician.

My career (?!) as a musician has certainly coloured my approach to sound recovery and restoration. Starting a little late in life (age c. 20 years), I've experimented (and appeared in public) with guitar/banjo, trombone, piano, C-clarinet, sopranino, soprano, alto, C-Melody and baritone saxes as well as trumpet, cornet and cornopean. There have been occasional flirtations with others including vibraphone, drums, stroh-viol and sarrusaphone. As the man "Shorty Pederstien" said on "Interviews of our Time": ". . . blow is like an instrument!". I played what I believe to be my last gig on trombone in April this year at the fiftieth Anniversary performance by the Crane River Jazz Band. Having lost 3/4" of my left thumb to a circular saw a few years ago I seldom play the baritone sax. These days I usually play alto sax and cornopean (probably the last instrument of its kind in current use). . . but gigs tend to be few and far between these days. . . largely due to ill-considered music-licensing laws. You can get a good run-down of the events in my musical life from the "New Grove Dictionary of Jazz".

On The All Music Guide website you're listed as having worked with such a wide range of musicians, everyone from Benny Goodman to the Washboard Rhythm Kings. Those are groups you've reissued?

Of course I never played with Benny Goodman or the Washboard Rhythm Kings. . . but I have certainly lovingly remastered their recordings. Who could remaster Benny Goodman in entirety?. . . but I'm getting close to the completion of the Washboard Rhythm Kings and associated groups. . . two albums projected for a new label "Sensation" (Canadian). . . one completed, the other in progress, will complete the "set" of which five albums already exist on Collectors' Classics.

Who are your favorites to collect?

John Carter has spoken of records acquired from you. . . Ridiculously, perhaps, I'm still in the market but (perhaps foolishly) abandoned "Joslin's" a few years ago. . . Time available (or absence thereof) and the awesome unwieldliness of his "Journal" were the main factors, but I enjoy ferreting through a decent disposal pile or list in the hope of acquisition of viable copies of the ancient and beautiful. "Year dot" though c. 1940 is my principal period of interest. Big, small, black, white bands. . . Blues more urban, more vaudeville than country. I've an interest in college bands which goes a little beyond the music itself. I have still a lot of exploring to do on the one hand. . . on the other,there are records which I have sought in vain these past sixty years. . . such as JIMMIE'S JOYS "Angry/Toddlin' Blues" (Golden), COTTEN CLUB ORCHESTRA "Charleston Ball/Everybody Stomp" (Columbia), ORIGINAL JAZZ HOUNDS "All That I Had Is Gone/Lucy Long" (Columbia) for which I would pay handsomely. Help?

Have you ever had a "record disaster"?

Around eighteen years ago a lightning strike set fire to this building and, while actual losses numbered no more than half a dozen items, water damage reduced about four thousand E+s to V+s despite immediate drying and re-sleeving with a lot of help from my friends (we worked like hell from c. 2:30 a.m. through to around ten o'clock the following evening). This taught me a lot about the susceptibility to water of the various styles of pressing!! Painfully!