INTERVIEW: MARSHALL BLONSTEIN, AUDIO FIDELITY
Audio Fidelity is one of the worlds' premiere league re-issue labels. With a large and eclectic catalogue, covering everything from classic singer-songwriter, through to blues, hard rock and, more recently, prog-rock, it has a viable and loyal audience.
Based in the U.S.A. and led by helmsman, Marshall Blonstein, the imprint has developed a business model based on the restoration of classic titles to the market in optimum and sensitive re-masterings, primarily on 24k CD, but also a limited range of vinyl.
Recently the label has made the move to Hydrid / SACD for its new releases.
The label services a subscription membership via its 24k and Platinum Memberships, and a 'non-member' collectors base via various retail outlets.
A membership guarantees your own individual numbered edition of every release, delivered a few weeks prior to general release, (incidentally my number is '0111'), along with advance information of coming releases. A nice touch is the periodic raffles they conduct, with prizes such as artist autographed CDs, test pressings, etc. More information can be obtained on the label website.
I was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with Marshall Blonstein in mid-May 2014, and here is what he had to say.
Image credit: media.vcstar.com
DM: Marshall, welcome to the SNA forum. You got your start in the business with the DUNHILL label, in the mid-sixties.The label had some heavy hitters on the roster. The likes of THE FOUR TOPS, THREE DOG NIGHT, STEPPENWOLF, JOE WALSH, THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS, THE GRASS ROOTS, and interestingly, for a prog-rock fan such as I, one of Englands' prime prog exports, VAN DER GRAF GENERATOR.
Did you have access to the actual recording side of things in that time, and if so, which sessions linger in you memory?
MB: One session that will always stick in my memory was in the late 60's, SPIRIT was recording a song "Silky Sam,". This song was written about me by Randy California and Jay Ferguson. In the middle of the session, Lou Adler asked me to go into the studio and play a fake hand of cards with me doing the talking: the dialogue shows up on the album "The Family that Plays Together."
DM: You moved on to positions with A.B.C. Records, Columbia, Epic, and of special note, a lengthy tenure with ODE Records, working beside the aforementioned legendary LOU ADLER. What were the most notable albums from that period that you were involved with?
MB: Carole King "Tapestry," Cheech and Chong "Cheech and Chong" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
DM: What is your recollection of getting "THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW" off the ground. For a no-budget indie stage show, it did rather well.
MB: Originally, the show ran for a year in Hollywood and sold out performances every night. We took it to Broadway and "Rocky" died immediately. The album also died. A number of months later, Paramount Studios started running a movie "After Midnight" in Austin, TX, and we started selling albums in the theater and to everyone's surprise the movie and the album took off and became the phenomenon it is today. It was a real brilliant gamble on the part of Paramount Pictures.
DM. Did you get to meet the author, RICHARD O'BRIEN, or TIM CURRY?
MB: Yes, quite a few times. Tim and I actually became good friends. After the live show ran its course, whenever Tim would come to the U.S., we would get together or whenever I went to the U.K. we would get together.
DM: Following your departure from ODE, you moved on to work with CHRIS BLACKWELL at ISLAND RECORDS from '79 - '82. This period coincided with the release by ISLAND of two of the most pivotal albums of the era, from two of the more 'complex' female artists of any era - MARIANNE FAITHFULL and GRACE JONES.
From Grace, came "NIGHTCLUBBING", which was an instant classic and remains quite timeless, and an audiophiles delight.
From Marianne came the extraordinary comeback album, "BROKEN ENGLISH". This is still regarded as one of the most lacerating collections ever released.
I recall Chris Blackwell initially declining to release John Martyns' "GRACE & DANGER" album because he felt it was too disturbed and intimate for general release.
Did anyone say to Marianne, "Are you sure you want to release this?" What are your memories of those albums, and those two artists?
MB: While I was at Island Records, I did work with Grace Jones but the "Nightclubbing" album came after I departed.
I worked very closely with Marianne on "Broken English." She was an absolute pro in the studio and a great person. She even appeared on Saturday Night Live. I don’t have any knowledge of Chris declining John Martyns "Grace & Danger."
DM: Were there artists you were involved from that period you felt did not get the recognition they deserved?
MB: I always felt that Robert Palmer never received the credit for being a great singer. He was thought of more of as a "pretty face." Robert had a great voice.
DM: Those years also saw STEVE WINWOOD return to action with "ARC OF THE DIVER" and the ongoing world domination of BOB MARLEY. What was it like to be at the centre of all that? Was there a down-side?
MB: No down-side. We were working with 2 incredibly talented artists. Marley was always a challenge, as he was always surrounded by an entourage and hard to get to know one-on-one, but one of the most dynamic live performers I have ever seen.
Steve Winwood was very shy and Chris had to coax him out of retirement to record "Arc of the Diver." I think once Steve got a taste of recording again, he took full advantage. He's a great artist, songwriter, performer and innovator.
DM: With the coming of the compact disc era, DUNHILL launched their catalogue in the new medium, circa 1986.
Tell us about how DUNHILL COMPACT CLASSICS became D.C.C. Compact Classics?
How do you feel about tobacco companies?
MB: I don't smoke, so I have no feeling about tobacco companies one way or the other. When we initially started the company we were Dunhill Compact Classics and we were one of the first record companies to release CDs only. It was the beginning of the CD era.
We were sued by Alfred Dunhill for name infringement, which was bogus intimidation. I chose not to spend the time, nor the resources, as by this time we had established ourselves for the sound quality and the uniqueness of being a CD only record company. So, we took the DCC as short for Dunhill Compact Classics. It worked out fine for us. We were never again stuck with the association of Dunhill... the cigar company.
DM: The D.C.C. mission statement was essentially to do careful re-masters of carefully chosen repertoire for the new medium. Can you describe your selection criteria?
MB: My criteria has always been to select artists and music that I would like to personally take home an listen to. That's why we have never done any rap,hip hop or country.
DM: What were the best 'catches' and which ones on the list got away?
MB: The "Best" was the Ray Charles catalog and the "One that Got Away" was the David Bowie catalog.
DM: I am aware that a few of the titles continue to be regarded as the most faithful mastering of those albums to date. Of note is "WHEELS OF FIRE", (which if memory serves, received praise from Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker themselves), some prime Paul McCartney titles, and The Eagles classic,"HOTEL CALIFORNIA".
Which D.C.C. albums are you personal favorites?
MB: The Doors "The Doors," The Eagles "Hotel California," and Ray Charles "Greatest Hits."
DM: Can you tell me about the mastering of the classic Jefferson Starship album, "RED OCTOPUS"?
MB: No. Steve Hoffman worked on that.
DM: Perhaps pursuant to the idea that pop and rock music was essentially disposable, did it come as a surprise to you how carelessly master tapes were often treated, and do you see your role in many senses as 'archival'?
MB: No, I wasn't surprised the way the major labels treated the tapes. It was a transitional period from albums and cassettes to the CD. It was much easier to store the masters digitally as opposed to the actual analog tapes. Economics won out over music history.
DM: D.C.C. went off the radar. What happened?
MB: We broadened our revenue base from music to audiobooks and we then purchased a camera company. Those two last purchases took me away from the music and I chose to leave the company and start Audio Fidelity.
DM: In 2002, AUDIO FIDELITY surfaced as part of a wider group called MORADA. John Paul DeJoria is your business partner, and Ernie Campagna assumed the role of General Manager. John Paul appears to be a very interesting combination- a massively successful businessman with a progressive social conscience. Ernie, like you, has a background in the music world. A serendipitous teaming of talent?
MB: That's why it's so enjoyable working together. We all add to the mix.
DM: For the music side of things, the A.F. philosophy remained consistent with that of D.C.C. Are you satisfied with the progress so far?
MB: Yes, I am very satisfied. We get to work with some of the greatest music and artists ever recorded. What is there not to be satisfied with?
DM: You have two of Americas' most respected mastering specialists as your chosen technical team: STEVE HOFFMAN and KEVIN GRAY. How did the initial association come about?
MB: Steve had just left Universal and the engineer that we were initially working with wanted to start his own company which left a vacancy for a mastering engineer at our company. Steve walked in at the right time and has proven to be one of my great finds. Steve found Kevin Gray at one of the studios we were using to master our discs and we all worked well together from then on. Kevin was Steve's engineer and has since gone on to build his own reputation as one of the best mastering engineers in the business.
DM: Steve refers to his mastering approach as "the breath of life". Taken literally, the implication is, if you get the vocal sounding real, the rest of the sonic picture should fall into place. Is this a reasonable take on the matter?
MB: No, no, no... All of the elements have to fall into place to create a great re-master. Each instrument along with the vocals have to blend to create that unique sound that we go for.
DM: Who gets to make the final choices of which albums will be revisited?
MB: At the end of the day, I do, but I listen to all opinions before making a decision.
DM: Are you 'hands on' at the mastering sessions- that is, do you join the actual session?
Has there ever been a time when you have said, " Gents, I think we can do better."?
MB: Very rarely have I ever questioned what Steve and Kevin do, and that is very rarely. We have worked together long enough that we all know where we want to get to.
DM: Steve Hoffman has stated it took five days to remaster the "BLUE" album. Being a worshipper of all things Joni, I would be interested if you can recall what the concerns were with that one?
MB: Steve would have to go into that with you.
DM: You recently called time on the 24k series due to the sourcing difficulties with the gold used for the reflective layer, and subsequent delays in releases.
This seems to have cleared the way for a booming hybrid SACD resurgence. Do you feel this is now a viable medium?
MB: I think it's quite viable. It's working well for us. The 24K Gold disc actually gave us a distinction in the marketplace with our see through slip case and the gold disc, so I hated to see it go. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the sound.
DM: Many of the A.F. titles quickly sold out, and now command silly money on ebay. In response to many requests from collectors, you recently produced a box set of the Deep Purple titles you had released individually in prior years.
Presumably, this involved re-negotiating with the original company and the artists themselves. It seems to have been a very successful venture.
So, can I read into this, that A.F. retain the actual first generation re-mastered album, and provide the artist/company with a first generation copy of it for their archive?
MB: We never talk about the source we use for re-mastering. I discovered years ago that people with no clue were more interested in the source than the sound. We never make our re-mastering tapes available to the record companies. That's our sound and our fingerprint in the marketplace.
DM: Is there any likelyhood of another run of ALICE COOPERS' two early titles "LOVE IT TO DEATH" and "KILLER" as SACDs.
MB: I don't think so.
DM: Is your experience of being at the heart of the rock business in the golden age influential in you album choices?
MB: I guess so. I never looked at it that way, but I am very familiar with most of the music we work with, so I think it's a big plus to know where the artists came from and the story behind most of the recordings.
DM: If there was one album you could obtain remastering rights to by merely clicking your fingers, what would it be?
MB: Fleetwood Mac "Then Play On," AC/DC "Let There Be Rock" Steely Dan "Can't Buy a Thrill" or Joni Mitchell "Ladies of the Canyon."
DM: Of the many albums that D.C.C. and A.F. have released, which one gives you the biggest glow when you hear it?
MB: The Doors "The Doors."
DM: Marshall, SNA readers are intensely curious about audio gear. Can you tell us a little about your home system?
MB: I would prefer not to.
DM: In your personal estimation, and not necessarily including artists you have worked with, who have been the five most significant artists/ bands since 1960?
MB: I think it runs a gamut from The Beatles to Michael Jackson to Elton John to Nirvana to Tupac to Barbra Streisand to Frank Sinatra, The Doors, etc.
DM: Final question, (and thank you for your patience so far), between Steve, Kevin and yourself, who has the best 'golden ears'?
MB: I think that each one of us have ears that are attuned to different music.
Kevin is a big Jazz fan. Steve loves early Rock & Roll and I am a Motown person, so it depends on the genre of music you are talking about. How is that for vague?
DM: Marshall, in case you were wondering, my current favourite A.F. release is the amazing "AMERICA" debut album, SACD. Quite stunning.
From the D.C.C. era, probably the aforementioned "RED OCTOPUS". A sentimental favourite.
On top of my wish list: Joni Mitchells' "HEJIRA" and David Blues' "STORIES".
The one I missed and would kill to get- "WHEELS OF FIRE". ........or, maybe, "CITY TO CITY", or..............maybe "BLUE"........or....
Marshall, it has been a pleasure to run these questions by you.
From the team at StereoNET, thank you.
Cheats Guide to some of the best recent Audio Fidelity titles.
VANGELIS - " BLADE RUNNER O.S.T" HYBRID SACD/ AFZ154.
CROSBY, STILLS & NASH- "CROSBY, STILLS & NASH" 24k CD / AFZ131.
WARREN ZEVON- "EXCITABLE BOY" HYBRID SACD/ AFZ166.
ERIC CLAPTON- "BEHIND THE SUN" HYBRID SACD/ AFZ175.
THE BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND- "EAST-WEST" HYBRID SACD/ AFZ172.
PETER, PAUL AND MARY- "PETER, PAUL AND MARY" HYBRID SACD/AFZ161.
BOB DYLAN- "GREATEST HITS Volume II" HYBRID SACDx2/AFZ2 145.
YES- "CLOSE TO THE EDGE" HYBRID SACD/ AFZ147.
AMERICA- "AMERICA" HYBRID SACD/ AFZ167.
Originally published as Marshall Blonstein: The StereoNET Interview
A walking encyclopedia of music, David's broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.
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