TAM HENDERSON: Reference Recordings

As fascinating as the design of high-end hardware can be, it goes without question that without musical software (or firmware, as our more computer-minded readers would have it) of an appropriately high standard, the whole business would be pointless. Stereophile's interviews have therefore often featured engineers and producers whose recorded work reveals sound quality to be a major concern. I interviewed Performance Recordings' James Boyk back in Vol.9 No.6; J. Gordon Holt spoke in Vol.10 No.3 with Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga, of Sheffield Lab, and with Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings, about their history-making Moscow sessions; JGH also discussed Brad Miller's and Lou Dorren's Colossus digital project in Vol.10 No.1 and Vol.11 No.4; while last month Dick Olsher interviewed Peter McGrath, responsible for some superb-sounding recordings for Harmonia Mundi USA as well as for his own Audiofon label.To continue this irregular series of interviews, I met with record producer Tam Henderson at the 1989 WCES. Together with Keith Johnson, Tam has been responsible for a consistently excellent-sounding series of recordings on the Reference Recordings label, including, of course, 1983's awesomely percussive Dafos (RR-12). Perhaps unknown to relatively recent readers of high-end magazines, however, is the fact that Tam is one of the few audio personalities to have crossed the fence dividing the press from those who actually get their hands dirty. Before starting Reference Recordings, he first wrote for the seminal San Francisco magazine Sound Advice, then contributed a number of landmark reviews to The Absolute Sound back in the mid-to-late '70s, including one of the original Jon Iverson–designed Electro Research amplifier, perhaps the progenitor of today's muscle amps from Krell, Mark Levinson, and Jeff Rowland (footnote 1).

When we met, I had intended to ask Tam about a major project Reference Recordings had undertaken to record Fats Waller stride-piano pieces both direct-to-CD and direct-to-DMM-LP. Both processes are hardly straightforward, and Tam and Keith Johnson had expended considerable ingenuity to make them happen. Unfortunately, the test pressings revealed that the Bösendorfer computer-controlled player piano, which was essential to realizing the project, had had a defective damper pedal and the entire project had been, well, not canceled, but at least postponed. I asked Tam, therefore, what had led him to start a record company. Surely it didn't spring, fully formed, from a vacuum...?

Tam Henderson: More or less it did. But if I could go back and change one decision that I made in my life, I would not have gone into the record business. Even though it now appears that it's successful, it's been very, very difficult. But as to how I got into it? Well, my background is not in technical matters at all. Early on in my school days I ......

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