[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
December 1997


On Sunday afternoon, weather permitting, I take a two-hour walk, interrupted at the ninety-minute mark by a jumbo Margarita and a bowl of Caldo Tlapeño (spicy chicken stew) at Pancho’s Mexican restaurant. My arrival at Pancho’s usually coincides with a musical stroll-through by Hermanos Calderón, a nine-piece Mariachi band. Since an hour and a half of walking takes a toll on one’s appearance, I try to distance myself from the well-dressed Sunday lunch crowd. At a non-smoking table in the farthest reaches of the cavernous restaurant, I savor a bracing repast and enjoy live music about unrequited love, love won and lost, dysfunctional love. My life story set to music. The echo of voices, guitars, violins and trumpets resounds, as the Calderón Brothers circulate among the tables, serenading people who have the means to tip, unlike the impoverished-looking gringo with steaming hair, sitting in the corner.

As you might guess, I’d rather be ignored by Hermanos Calderón for several reasons. (1) I carry very little money when walking -- not enough to pay the band; (2) A visit to my table might draw attention to my drowned-rat appearance; and (3) I fear the sound pressure level at which the band plays: Hermanos Calderón are capable of irradiating your bones with music. Nine Mariachis, and true, play much louder than audiophiles are accustomed to hearing. In my far-field position, I estimate decibel peaks of 85, which is enough for me. Listening at a table right under the trumpet section would be ear-shattering. It is well that the Calderón Brothers stay away. If they cut loose at my table, I’d probably make like the proverbial monkey and place hands over ears, embarrassing myself as well as the band..

This is not to say I find the playing in any way objectionable. In fact, I have come to relish Mariachi, which is true Latin soul-music, Mexican style. As a hi-fi hobbyist, however, I like my music politely conveyed. This proclivity may stem from years of listening to digital signals feeding muscle-amps motivating inefficient loudspeakers. Such combinations do not seem to produce lifelike volume levels in a sweet, strain-free way. Even a well-recorded solo piano makes me grope for the remote control at the first sign of lifelike dynamics. In my experience, music played loudly on a CD-based home system sounds distorted, compressed or unrelentingly hard on the ears. I prefer soft music.

By contrast, many non-audiophiles, who listen to live music more than I do, seem to prefer their music LOUD. For example, Monica the maid likes music to resonate within her diminutive frame. For several years, she has had daily opportunities to listen to state-of-the-art audio systems. However, unless I play salsa with great exuberance, she ignores my music, choosing instead to move about while listening to a cassette over headphones. Her facial expression under the influence of cassettes is blissful. Once, out of envy, I asked her to let me have a listen. The sound was awful, but at least it was loud. Made my ears ring for an hour. I asked Monica why she turned the volume up to eleventeen. She gave me a sly smile, and shrugged. I figured she was hard of hearing.

Then, last month Monica invited me to her mother’s birthday party where I learned something about the listening habits of real people. Monica’s mother, who is in her late 50’s, loves Mariachi music. For the past decade, Monica and her sisters have treated mama to a bash, inviting 50 of her favorite people over to eat rice and seafood, drink wine, and listen to Mariachi music, en vivo. This year, Monica squeezed into her tiny living-dining room a nine-piece band, none other than Hermanos Calderón.

When the band trooped in, I was of mixed emotions: Excited, because I knew the group played well, and dismayed, lest they should recognize the cheapskate customer who soaked up free music at Pancho’s. I hoped my clean shirt and long pants disguised me. The band leader noticed me immediately. He gave me such a warm handshake, I figured he had confused me with a tipping customer. Then, the lead trumpet-player gave me a glower and I knew the disguise was pierced. Once, in an incautious moment, I had gallantly sent a Margarita to a beautiful girl at a nearby table who turned out to be this man’s wife. Did he still hold it against me? I thought it best to avert eye contact.

After brief salutations, the nine Mariachis squeezed into line and the Calderón brother who led the band burst into song. Two guitars accompanied him. The contrast between the huge sound of the voice and the quiet strumming of the guitars was unlike anything I had ever heard on recordings. The larynx is a much stronger amplifier than a guitar box. As the song reached a climax, the guitars became empathic but they never approached the sheer power of the vocalist.

The virile singing and playing of the three performers brought the collective temperature up. Everyone felt looser and happier. Gradually, the band added a second voice, the bass guitar , the violins and finally the brass. When the trumpets cut loose, I felt the wind blast my face even as the notes drove my eardrums into overload. Wow. From a distance of six feet, the volume level was off the chart. It was dynamic, vital playing of emotional music, and it was LOUD! I glanced at Monica and noticed a look on her face similar to the one she wears while listening to cassettes at deafening levels. Then, I knew her little secret. State-of-the-art hi-fi is to live music what gruel is to bouillabaisse. The key missing ingredient is dynamic, effortless, and contextually-proper, loudness. In Monica’s room, the explosion of sound, its reverberations and sudden silences, created sensory chaos. Hearing seemed less important than touch as the air in the room became charged with energy. Our bodies quivered. Movement was involuntary. We all wanted to clap hands or dance or sing along. What began as listening ended as participation. It occurred to me that forty-five minutes of Mariachi produces an intensity of feeling that may not be attainable from a lifetime of stereo. I imagine that Monica uses headphones in an attempt to recapture the excitement that comes once a year to her home and almost never to mine.

As a result of Mariachi at close quarters, I have formed a few ideas about live, unamplified music as a hi-fi reference. Ironically, since I was so impressed with the vivacity of live music, I’ve come to believe that acoustical music instruments are designed to play as loud as a person can compel them and no louder. Guitar strings strummed by an André the Giant would probably vibrate with about the same intensity as when played by Segovia. Humans can’t overdrive a classical guitar, but a hi-fi system can. To play a recording of a guitar at a volume level beyond the pressure level I heard in Moniker’s room, is to distort the sound. When testing a preamp with a CD of solo guitar, I usually find it necessary to turn the volume down in order to attain realism.

Conversely, the human voice, at "live" volume levels, can cause a headache. When the Calderón Brothers performed a duet in Monica’s living room, the crescendos made my ears tingle. A few decibels higher and I might have felt pain. The music was well-served, however, because the nature of the songs required robust vocalizing. If your girl ran off with your best friend, you wouldn’t show any mercy to anyone’s ears, either.

From a hi-fi standpoint, I realize that in order to reproduce the absolute sound of the human voice in my room, it is necessary to turn up the volume. With the touch of a safecracker, I fine-tune numbers on the remote control. For example, a recording of solo voice with piano accompaniment needs adjusting to the point at which the piano sounds lifelike, rather than the voice. If I set the volume to a realistic vocal level, the piano is on the verge of frying my tweeters. At a maximum setting for the accompaniment, the vocalist is still not as ear-piercingly reproduced as reality would dictate, but at least my speakers live to fight another day. Discs of unaccompanied solo voice work fine for this drill, but the ones I own are too boring to listen to more than once a year.

Thirdly, from the experience of hearing live Mariachi at arm’s length, I believe that most recordings do a poor job of capturing the varying intensities of acoustic instruments. At the end of their in-home concert, the Hermanos Calderón offered for sale cassettes and compact discs of a recording they had made. I won their undying friendship by purchasing two CDs, one as a gift for Monica’s mother. Since several of the concert selections were on the disc, I couldn’t wait to compare the recording to the live performance. Within a few hours of purchasing the CD, I cued it up on the precisely-matched system in my home, expecting an approximation of what I had heard. Egad, what a fiasco! When the voices were prominent, the trumpets were dull. When the trumpets were brilliant, the violins were swamped. When the guitars were natural, the voices were nasal. Any resemblance between live Mariachi and recorded Mariachi was strictly coincidental. I’d like to blame the recording but I doubt it was over-produced. Despite minimalist techniques, since that is all the producer could afford, the CD did not sound anything like Hermanos Calderón live.

A few days later, Monica surprised me by asking to hear the disc in my system. I played it for her at a substantial volume setting, just shy of painful. I hoped she would not be as critical of the sound as I was. She wasn’t. "That’s really good," she said. She smiled at me like a parent does to a child with his first drawing. "Listen to the trumpets," she said. I know when I’m being patronized.

"Well, the sound isn’t really that great," I conceded.

"It’s better than my cassette player," Monica countered.

"I should hope so."

Monica looked pensive. "You know something," she said, wagging a finger, " if you sold all this equipment, you could invite a Mariachi band in to play once a week for the rest of your life."

"I never thought of it that way," I replied.

"You should," she said. "This stuff will never sound real."

I did not fire Monica that day, nor the day after. I prefer to keep her around as a grim reminder that hi-fi, despite its many pleasurable features, is not about Mariachi en vivo. It is about recreating musical artifice, a recording, with as much exactitude as the playback equipment permits. A hi-fi system should only be referenced to splendid examples of itself, and never be compared to live acoustic music playing in a real space. The results are too embarrassing.

And now, for those who find reading to be thirsty work, a refreshing recipe.

Pancho’s Jumbo Margarita

  • 2 ounces of freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 2 ounces of triple sec
  • 3 ounces of tequila
  • 6 ice cubes

First, moisten the rim of a 16-oz. glass by swirling a piece of lime around it. Press the mouth of the glass into a plate of course-grain salt to coat the rim. Set the glass aside. Pour the liquor and lime juice into a cocktail shaker containing the 6 ice cubes. Shake for about sixty seconds, or until the cocktail shaker is extremely cold.

Add four or five ice cubes to the 16-oz. glass. Strain the mixture into the glass. Discard the ice that was in the cocktail shaker.

Lick a bit of salt from the glass with each sip. Try to enjoy the entire drink before it becomes watery. This should not be much of a problem. Salud.

Jim Saxon


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