Publisher Profile

Stranger Times Indeed: From Stranger Records to Stranger High Fidelity

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DB: And how do you plan on both interacting and servicing prospective customers amid lockdowns and ever-changing Pandemic guidelines? Where do you plan on locating this shop of yours, Stranger High Fidelity? And what if anything would make it different from a traditional shop?

CJ: For the last couple of years I have had my own studio space at Real World Studios . At first I shared it with producer Steve Osborne, but Steve decided to relocate last year and I took it over. Luckily it has its front door and so even during a lockdown, I was able to go to work. Having decided to open SHF I completely remodeled the room. It is now a great listening room, and I have a writing/editing area at the back. Customers can come by appointment and enjoy the space. I can’t by any means call it a shop. I’m not sure what I’d call it to be honest – a high fidelity retail listening experience?

I had planned to do a big launch event in October, but the second lockdown sadly made it untenable. There will be events in 2021 I’m sure. I want people to come and listen to music in a way they’ve never heard it before. I’m going to use the Big Room at Real World and have lined up a few industry friends to come and chat and play some of their music on a couple of systems and through the main monitors too, to give an insight on how the album was made. Artists, producers, musicians, and engineers. They’ve all got some great rock and roll stories so it should be a lot of fun. Real World has the best French chef, Jerome, so some great food and wine too.


DB: What makes you think that your background and career translate into the skills and experience of selecting and championing Hi-Fi brands and subsequently assembling them in pleasing systems? Do you see a natural progression from those who are making music to success in the Hi-Fi retail sector?  I know from personal experience that the last place any musician would want me is sitting behind a console.

CJ: I started as a musician and kind of became an engineer by mistake. Robin Millar gave me a job as a tape op/runner so I could pay the rent. At first, I just sat at the back of the control room and watched. In those days you wouldn’t speak until you were spoken to, but I instantly fell in love with studios, even if I did make something like 20,000 cups of tea (I worked it out once). So all my training was watching and listening, and my technical knowledge to this day remains a bit sketchy. Please don’t ever put a circuit diagram in front of me. But as the drummer, Andy Gangadeen once remarked about me “Cameron loves machines, and machines love Cameron” after I had coaxed his aging Otari multitrack back to life for one last overdub. What I’m trying to say is that I do things by instinct and feel when I’m in the studio and I think I put together HiFi systems in the same way. I put systems together that I love. That’s not to say of course that any system is right or wrong, but if I like how it sounds and it conveys the emotion of the music, then I’m happy and hopefully, the customer will be too.

Still, some systems are very wrong indeed. A couple of years ago I went to the Munich show, which was an eye-opener. I went into one room that had a setup that was something like $750K. The speakers had goodness knows how many tweeters and drivers and subs and the balance of the music was utterly bizarre. I can’t remember what track was playing but it was Steve Gadd playing drums. The hi-hat seemed to have chosen one tweeter, the top of the snare was in the center, the rattle of the snare somewhere else and I have no idea what had happened to the ride cymbal. It had a mind of its own. Now I’ve been lucky enough to have recorded Steve Gadd twice, once in London and once at the Power Station in New York and I can tell you that his drum kit doesn’t sound like that.


DB:  From my research, I gather that these are some of the brands you’ll be stocking: Bricasti, Clearaudio, DS Audio, Furutech, Kerr Acoustic, MBL, Roon, Townshend Audio, Trinnov Audio, etc.  What were your criteria for selecting these names above others? What do you see, hear, and experience in them?

Stranger Things High-Fidelity

CJ: In short, emotional response. There are scores of wonderful brands out there I’m sure, and I love discovering new ones. These however I know extremely well and they communicate musically exactly what I want to feel. It’s that simple really. That and the fact that they are all stunningly engineered without compromise.

It was probably Bricasti that set me down the high-fidelity road. I’ve always used the Bricasti reverb unit in the studio and Garry Robson, the Bricasti distributor in the UK, called me some years ago asking if I wanted to try out their DAC. I have a very good friend, Stuart Bruce, who is a very fine engineer and has a great pair of ears. We put together a shoot out of DACs and spent the afternoon comparing and contrasting. The Bricasti was a revelation, won hands down.

Jes Kerr is the young designer at Kerr Acoustic. I met him a few years ago when he was starting and I’ve stayed in touch, watching the development he’s made. Lovely loudspeakers, quite studio-Esque, and the ribbon tweeter is sweet as.

Dave Denyer introduced me to MBL and I fell in love. Both the electronics and omnidirectional loudspeakers are fantastic. I’ve got the 101s set up in my room at the moment and they’re creating a huge amount of interest. Yesterday a client in the next-door studio came in for a listen and she burst into tears. My very dear friend Charlie Jones (Robert Plant, Page & Plant, Goldfrapp) said it was the best he’d ever heard music. Nigel Pulsford from Bush imagined it like taking a narcotic. That’s what I mean by an emotional response.

Clearaudio makes the most beautiful turntables and they sound sublime. I have the Innovation here with a DS cartridge. Love it.

Cables. I auditioned a whole load of speaker cables and honestly lost the will to live at one point. Then Max Townshend sent me some of his and I had a shiver run down me. They’re the best. He makes fantastic interconnects too, as do Furutech. They do exactly what I want them to do, without bothering me. Perfect.


DB: Do you listen to music differently when you’re on the job than when you’re at home relaxing and winding down? For that matter do you even take your work home with you? Or would you rather relax in silence?

CJ: I listen differently in different situations. It’s a massive difference. If I’m mixing, I can be listening to the same passage for many hours, concentrating on balance, frequency range, the interaction of instruments, tonal range and color as well as musical intention, dynamic, and emotion. I have very mild synesthesia so I can kind of ‘see’ different frequencies. It’s hard to explain but it’s a pixelated palette of colors. It’s not disturbing in any way but is more pronounced when I’m deep in concentration doing a mix.

For many years, the system we had at home was a Technics SL1200, a Sugden ampliifer, and a succession of speakers, none of them particularly audiophile. There’s always music somewhere in the house with three kids. When they were growing-up we always played records on a Saturday night having dinner. It became a bit of a thing. The kids always put on 70s disco and Frank Sinatra quite bizarrely, and a lot of Stevie Wonder. Very odd for 9-12-year-old girls! I remember when they then started to plug in their iPods and out of interest, I asked them if they thought it was different. My eldest looked at me as if I was mad and said: “Duh of course Dad, cos vinyl is live”. I knew streaming iPods were going to change music forever when on a flight I asked one of the girls what music she was listening to. Again, the same look and the reply “I don’t know – it’s on shuffle”. When I got back from the holiday, I was working at Metropolis Studios and had lunch with the great mastering engineer Tony Cousins. I related him the story and he told me that several times over the last few months, for the first time,  he had artists coming in to master their albums without a running order. They simply didn’t care.

Sorry I digress.


DB: There’s a belief among audiophiles that they want to hear music as it sounded, as it was played, as it was sung in the studio? What’s your opinion? Given your experience, is this realistic? Is this truly the ideal, that to which audiophiles should strive? Do we want to hear what you hear when you’re in the studio?

CJ: This is a big one.

Do I want to be transported to the Village Vanguard and listen to the Bill Evans Trio play Waltz For Debby as near as possible to how it sounded? Of course.

Do I want to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic at the Philharmoniker? Of course.

I want to listen as closely as possible to the way it was played at the recording and in the same space.

However, there is no perfect recording and during the entire process, there are choices made by the artist, producer, and engineer. It’s a subjective procedure. There’s the choice of microphone type, the choice of the number of microphones, the choice of placement, the choice of microphone amplifier and the recording medium, whether the microphones need to be equalized (there is no perfect mic) and levels adjusted, then choices, even the most subtle, in the mixing process.

After that is post-production. I vividly remember the day, as a very young engineer I spoke to a classical editor at Abbey Road who had just spent the day with a famous conductor editing a recording of a symphony bar by a bar from different takes. Very naively I had thought that a classical studio recording was a case of press record, performance, stop record. It isn’t. I have to admit to being rather crestfallen.

And Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard? Well, I’m never going to be there with the smell of tobacco and the people and a glass of whiskey in my hand. So, I’ll try to get as near as I can. That’s cool.

When it comes to modern popular music of the last half-century, there is a great lack of understanding of how records are made. Starting right back with The Beatles and The Beach Boys and the advent of multitrack recording, where it has been possible to overdub instruments, there is no ‘how it sounded in the studio’. It doesn’t exist. The rhythm track of drums, bass, and rhythm guitar might well have been cut life, with the singer in a booth providing a guide vocal, but then everything would be overdubbed individually, things replaced, things fixed, polished, effects added, many takes of lead vocal recorded and then compiled.  It is the creation of the studio. Steely Dan didn’t rock up to a studio, all setup and play the tunes. It took months and months and months. I have spent days and days and days and weeks and weeks of my life compiling vocals, painstakingly replacing words, in some cases syllables – and that was before the advent of Pro Tools! Watching the young engineers editing these days is mesmerizing but then again, I could do it with a Studer tape machine, an auto locator, 2-inch tape, and a razor blade.

I know there are audiophile labels making music that tries to take you as near as possible to the performer, using a single stereo pair of mics, or a Neumann Dummy Head or whatever, with the cleanest possible signal path and so on, but it doesn’t float my boat, to be honest. It often seems like a technical exercise. Yes, those bagpipes sound just like you were standing next to them. If that’s your thing I’m all for it, but it’s not for me.

What we audiophiles need to strive for is a system that best conveys and communicates the artist’s intention in a way that as far as possible conjures up an emotional response, that makes you feel, that touches you. It is ALL about the music.


DB: Studios are outfitted differently. There is so much acoustic treatment. What is your philosophy regarding acoustic treatment in the home? And have you contemplated residential solutions as part of Stranger High Fidelity? To what degree will the customer’s physical listening room be taken into account?

CJ: Room acoustics is fundamental to my philosophy of music playback. The truly great studios have been built by great engineers and acousticians. Bill Putnam, Phil Ramone, Keith Grant, Westlake, Neil Grant. So many others. I was honored to have got to know Keith Grant towards the end of his life. Olympic Studios can be counted as one of the best studios ever. The number of truly classic albums that came out of there, in my opinion, eclipses Abbey Road. Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, oh the list is endless.

I use the word genius very rarely, but Keith Grant was a genius. His knowledge of acoustics, his engineering chops, his instincts for what would sound right place him in the top pantheon of recording engineers and studio designers. And boy he was a good company to go for a beer with. A quick story about Keith. When Olympic closed as a studio I headed a consortium trying to buy it. In the mid-eighties, Virgin had bought it and brought in the very fashionable studio designer Sam Toyoshima who promptly declared it “unfit to record music in” and proceeded to rip it apart. It broke Keith’s heart. I approached Keith and asked him if he would like to come in and restore it to how it had been. We met at the now empty studio and he gave me a guided tour, with dozens of incredible anecdotes. It was the first time he had been back, I believe.

After spending the morning there, we repaired to the Red Lion pub in Barnes for a spot of lunch. At the bar, Keith ordered a pint of ‘Directors’ ale. He took a sip, pondered for a second, and said to the barman “Very good, I think you’ll find the barrel is almost exactly at half level.” I was rather bemused, as was the barman. We sat at a table and continued chatting. After five minutes the barman appeared to tell us that, after Keith’s comment, he had gone down to the cellar to check the barrel. It was at almost exactly half level. So not only one of the best sets of ears ever, but also one of the best sets of taste buds. I wish I had known him for longer. Sadly, the consortium didn’t quite work out and now Olympic is a cinema. A very lovely cinema by all accounts.

But back to room acoustics. If you measure a typical room there can be up to 10 dB of distortion in the frequency response. That’s a lot of DBS. A 10 dB bump at 80Hz is going to seriously affect the tonal balance of your setup. No matter what component you change that problem isn’t going away. It has to be addressed. I fully understand that the majority of systems are in a living environment, not in a dedicated listening room and that décor and practicality have to be taken into account. However there are some very elegant solutions, and even with some very discrete room treatment, the benefits are colossal. £1,000 of room treatment will make more of a difference than any interconnect or mains cable, I promise you.

Stranger High Fidelity is by its very nature a bespoke service and I provide a ground-up solution by visiting the customer’s listening space and making recommendations based upon that. I can construct dedicated listening rooms and home cinemas and even entire home automation systems in partnership with a specialist company here in the UK.

DSP room correction is a very interesting one and seems to divide the pro world from the audiophile. In this whole interview, I have been referencing classic, great recording studios. I have been lucky enough to have lived through the halcyon days of the studio. However, those days are sadly gone, or certainly going. Across the globe, studios have closed. Big recording spaces are not needed anymore. Contemporary music is often made entirely ‘in the box’ – entirely in a computer. The range of instrument plug-ins, outboard plug-ins, and the capabilities of the modern DAW is truly astonishing. Recording budgets have been brutally slashed and a lot of studios are struggling to hold on. It’s pretty much the survival of the fittest now. What has happened is that producers have relocated to their own spaces where the bulk of recording is done, only going to big studios to records drums or strings and so on. Unless of course, they are lucky enough to be working with major artists who can afford an old-school recording budget. The producer’s own spaces have not necessarily been acoustically designed and DSP is widely used to correct room anomalies and provide a neutral listening environment. The most popular brand amongst my friends and colleagues is Trinnov. It’s a super-smart system with a multi capsule mic that analyses the room and a box that sits between the mixing desk and the monitors. When I was looking into Hi-Fi and room acoustics, I found out they do a Hi-Fi version. It works astonishingly well. There’s a big ‘but’ though. I have discovered that many an audiophile doesn’t like DSP at all, and purity of path is non-negotiable. I understand and get it. I would, however, urge an open mind and in certain situations, it might work fantastically for a customer.

The audiophile holy grail, hearing the music as intended, but by whom? The artist? The professional recording studio engineer? Perhaps audiophiles have been leading themselves down the primrose path, putting too much trust in their own ears and quite possibly those of their “trusted” colleagues and I dare say members of Hi-Fi’s fourth-estate, the cadre of print, online, video reviewers.


The End


So much goes into the equation of system building, getting everything, including the listening room just right. Not all of us have access to someone like Cameron Jenkins with his professional background and history. And with this exploration of mine, I’d like to think that readers looking to refine, update, upgrade their systems, will benefit from a fresh, insightful perspective in looking and listening to gear and music.


One Response to Stranger Times Indeed: From Stranger Records to Stranger High Fidelity

  1. Sam Arar says:

    Looking forward to your recordings and I hope they are all in SACD format.

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