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Gryphon’s ReInvention Reviewed

Gryphon — ReInvention

Reviewed by Richard Elen

The sto­ry of the band Gryphon goes back to the begin­nings of the 1970s and the Lon­don Col­lege of Music, when mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ists Richard Har­vey and Bri­an Gul­land — who were play­ing Renais­sance wood­winds in Ear­ly Music band Musi­ca Reser­va­ta — got a small group togeth­er under the name Spelthorne. Soon the orig­i­nal lutenist left, and Graeme Tay­lor (gui­tars and vocals), who had been at school with Har­vey, joined the group, swift­ly fol­lowed by David Ober­lé on drums, per­cus­sion and vocals. Almost at once the band changed their name to Gryphon after the beast in Lewis Car­rol­l’s Alice’s Adven­tures In Won­der­land. The band start­ed by play­ing authen­tic medi­ae­val and Renais­sance music but soon branched out and start­ed writ­ing their own mate­r­i­al. Lawrence Aston, A&R at not­ed folk label Transat­lantic Records, heard the band and signed them. Their first, epony­mous album was released in 1973.

The band went on to make three more albums for Transat­lantic: Mid­night Mushrumps, based around their music for Peter Hal­l’s Nation­al The­atre pro­duc­tion of The Tem­pest; Red Queen to Gryphon Three, and Rain­dance, the lat­ter which I had the plea­sure to record and co-pro­duce in the mid­sum­mer of 1975. Var­i­ous dis­agree­ments between the band and the record com­pa­ny result­ed in Gryphon mov­ing to EMI’s Har­vest label, where they released one album, Trea­son, in 1977. By this time the band was, as were many high-qual­i­ty acts of the time, being eclipsed by punk artists who could go out and gig for far less mon­ey per night than a com­plex out­fit like Gryphon.

Thus the band became dor­mant, and so it remained until 2009 when they got togeth­er for a reunion con­cert. By then there had been rumours of a new album in the works, but noth­ing emerged. Richard Har­vey left the band in 2016 to pur­sue his exten­sive solo inter­ests, and well-known music library com­pos­er and mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Gra­ham Pres­kett joined. After a series of con­certs a new album, the first for 41 years, was announced: ReIn­ven­tion, released in Sep­tem­ber 2018.

The line­up on the album includes orig­i­nal mem­bers Gul­land, Ober­lé and Tay­lor, with the addi­tion of the afore­men­tioned Pres­kett, Rory McFar­lane on bass and Andy Find­on on a range of wood­winds. All the pieces on the album were writ­ten by band mem­bers: there are no arrange­ments of tra­di­tion­al pieces here as char­ac­terised the first two albums.

ReIn­ven­tion kicks off with Pipeup Downs­land Der­ry­Dell­Danko — a Gul­land title if I ever heard one, which fea­tures inter­weav­ing recorders with stac­ca­to gui­tar phras­es and chords, ulti­mate­ly joined by pipe organ and sax­o­phone. The piece wan­ders about lyri­cal­ly and extreme­ly pleas­ant­ly, and you nev­er quite know where it’s going to go next. Out of this North Kent child­hood idyll (for such it is), emerge Bri­an’s slight­ly avant-garde lyrics. “Stranger things than this have we passed / On our way to you today.” Indeed.

Next up is a piece from Pres­kett enti­tled Rhubarb Crumhorn. Yes, all the titles are fair­ly eso­teric, but this piece itself is less so: it’s a very acces­si­ble num­ber that builds gen­tly from flute and organ to bas­soon and into a fair­ly state­ly full band arrange­ment punc­tu­at­ed by warm Renais­sance-sound­ing chords, and even a lit­tle theme rem­i­nis­cent of some­thing that Richard Har­vey might have writ­ten. Then it’s off into a brisk gal­lop through a nat­ty chord pro­gres­sion. Despite being writ­ten by rel­a­tive “new boy” Pres­kett, this is a clas­sic self-penned (as opposed to trad) Gryphon piece: had it been me sequenc­ing this album, I would have opened the disc with it. There are, how­ev­er, no crumhorns in this piece.

With A Futur­is­tic Aun­tyquar­i­an we are back in Bri­an Gul­land ter­ri­to­ry, with an angu­lar harp­si­chord-like open­ing — but only for a moment, as a nice­ly extend­ed mock-Renais­sance wood­wind tune takes over, pranc­ing lyri­cal­ly over the under­ly­ing key­boards, to be joined by vio­lin before the track goes off on a pleas­ant Gul­lan­desque abstract wan­der with gen­tle exchanges between the instru­ments, ulti­mate­ly joined by drums before going some­what up-tem­po and final­ly return­ing to a more robust take on the open­ing. Nice.

Recall that the band is named Gryphon after the char­ac­ter in Car­rol­l’s Alice, and Graeme Tay­lor’s ten-minute set­ting of the poem Had­docks’ Eyes from Look­ing Glass becomes clear. Gen­tly wan­der­ing solo bas­soon opens, joined by clar­inet and vio­lin for a short trio until joined by acoustic gui­tar which brings struc­ture to the wan­der­ing — and a tune, albeit quite an eccen­tric one. The piece picks up on the entry of Bri­an’s vocal, play­ing the part of the White Knight, in a dia­logue with the voice of the Aged, Aged Man, played by Dave Ober­lé, with a back­ing that gen­tly rocks along, with occa­sion­al inter-verse returns to the lyri­cal wan­der­ing of the open­ing until we encounter a rougher solo sec­tion two-thirds of the way through, fea­tur­ing wild heav­i­ly dis­tort­ed and har­monised bas­soon. The vocal dia­logue gen­tly slows to an appar­ent end — but it’s not an end at all, it’s a lit­tle instru­men­tal romp that returns, final­ly, to the orig­i­nal gen­tle theme for the clos­ing lines.

Hamp­ton Caught is anoth­er Pres­kett num­ber, with one of sev­er­al pun­ning titles to boot. He notes, “It starts some­where near Sher­wood For­est, lurch­es through harp­si­chord in three four, a slight hint of boo­gie in three, then a prop­er bit of elec­tric gui­tar, before being inter­rupt­ed unac­count­ably by a church organ, some strange rhythms and a build up. It cul­mi­nates in the three four harp­si­chord sec­tion with addi­tion­al string as it were.” Could­n’t have put it bet­ter myself.

Hos­pi­tal­i­ty at A Price… (Den­nis) Any­one For? is, of course, anoth­er Gul­land num­ber. The sleeve notes describe this as a “genial evo­ca­tion of the 20s”, and it has some of that ulti­mate­ly, but in fact it sounds rather like anoth­er Car­roll poem with the excep­tion of a cou­ple of mod­ern ref­er­ences. And sud­den­ly: jazz crumhorns lead us off into a peri­od piece and a very strange ending.

Dumbe Dum Chit (Pres­kett) takes its strange name from a mnemon­ic for a drum pat­tern to resolve this “boun­cy bas­soon tune in a strange rhythm”. A neat lit­tle num­ber that fol­lolops along, with in fact two strange rhythms rather than just the one, fea­tur­ing not only bas­soon but clar­inet and gui­tar too.

Bathshe­ba is bass-play­er McFar­lane’s sole com­po­si­tion on the album. Gryphon fans will know Tay­lor’s style and cer­tain­ly Gul­land’s, and Pres­kett fits beau­ti­ful­ly into the Gryphon tra­di­tion, but McFar­lane’s is a new voice and a very pleas­ant one at that. We begin with inter­weav­ing frac­tured phras­es from bas­soon and clar­inet, joined by gui­tar and drums and, final­ly, a warm bass part that lasts only a few bars each time around before being joined by vio­lin and wood­winds. One is remind­ed just a lit­tle of the North Sea Radio Orches­tra or even the Muf­fin Men. The sleeve notes out­line the con­tro­ver­sial Bib­li­cal tale.

Sailor V, anoth­er by Gra­ham Pres­kett, begins with a respectably nau­ti­cal feel (you mean it’s not a pun?) fea­tur­ing pipes and fid­dle, joined by bas­soon and gui­tar. It moves gen­tly and lyri­cal­ly along until gain­ing a brash­er spring in its step, a touch of the Irish and some odd har­mon­i­ca flour­ish­es, as the piece moves through some live­ly changes in the course of its eight min­utes to cli­max with an elec­tric gui­tar sec­tion reca­pit­u­lat­ing the open­ing theme, dou­bled by oth­er instru­ments in a very Gryphon cul­mi­na­tion fol­lowed by a gen­tle wind-down. C’est la vie.

I have a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for Graeme Tay­lor’s song Ash­es. One of my favourite Gryphon tracks, it was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for the 1975 Rain­dance album, which I engi­neered and co-pro­duced, but was exclud­ed from the release by the record com­pa­ny for some unknown rea­son. Its curi­ous tale of after­noon crick­et, King’s nephews and stal­lions, gen­tly and lyri­cal­ly sung by Bri­an, is a true joy. Sum­mer that year at Sawmills stu­dio near Fowey in Corn­wall was hot, and I decid­ed to record Bri­an’s vocal (twice), in the open, in stereo, with the mics a fair dis­tance away from him so I caught the birds singing in the back­ground. The ver­sion on ReIn­ven­tion does­n’t have that, but Bri­an’s per­for­mance, albeit not dou­ble-tracked, is vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to the orig­i­nal, as is much of the arrange­ment, though the solos are instru­ment­ed dif­fer­ent­ly. Of course I pre­fer my ver­sion, but this one is very, very good 🙂 (You can hear the orig­i­nal on the Col­lec­tion II album if you can find one.)

The album clos­es with The Euphrates Con­nec­tion by Gul­land, which begins with a low-pitched recorder theme, picked up by gui­tar and then a curi­ous, short and unex­pect­ed vocal, devel­op­ing into a com­plex inter­weav­ing mul­ti-part instru­men­tal, laced with Bri­an’s trade­mark angu­lar and unex­pect­ed fig­ures, a deli­cious rocky inter­change between gui­tar, pipe organ and oth­er instru­ments lead­ing to a repeat­ing sequence of short pipe organ chords, adorned only by reverb and the occa­sion­al sonor­i­ty, before being joined by solo flute, bass, vio­lin and gui­tar frag­ments and fad­ing grad­u­al­ly to an end.

And so ends Gryphon’s first new album for over forty years. It’s beau­ti­ful­ly record­ed and pro­duced by Graeme Tay­lor in his “Mor­den Shoals” stu­dio: the over­all sound is excel­lent and well-cap­tured with a great deal of detail and care. The musi­cian­ship is of a uni­form­ly high stan­dard through­out and even the most com­plex angu­lar and avant-garde pas­sages are con­fi­dent, sure-foot­ed and exe­cut­ed with aplomb.

There are few artists who could return to the scene after four decades to such acclaim as Gryphon, as if their return has been await­ed by us all for the entire time they were away. ReIn­ven­tion pro­vides exact­ly what it says, the band rein­vent­ing itself with new mem­bers and new direc­tions. Unmis­take­ably Gryphon, it devel­ops musi­cal direc­tions that were hint­ed at in ear­li­er albums, takes them for­ward, and deliv­ers an ulti­mate­ly sat­is­fy­ing­ly and eclec­tic result. One can only hope that it is the first in a series as Gryphon moves for­ward to new musi­cal heights fol­low­ing its re-formation.

October 19, 2018   No Comments

More Gryphon Restoration

As I not­ed pre­vi­ous­ly, there are some tech­ni­cal chal­lenges asso­ci­at­ed with recov­er­ing the record­ings of the band Gryphon that I made in July 1974 dur­ing their land­mark per­for­mance at the Old Vic.

A notable prob­lem was the fact that there was a bass DI in the main PA mix (which was the basis for the record­ing, with the addi­tion of a coin­ci­dent pair of ambi­ent mics) and this was often extreme­ly loud in the bal­ance — some­times enough to cause inter­mod­u­la­tion dis­tor­tion with the rest of the mix (it’s pos­si­ble that this was over­loaded on the recording).

To give you an insight into the results of this fac­tor, here’s anoth­er piece from the Old Vic tapes. This is Open­ing Num­ber, the band’s, er, open­ing num­ber. Note the effect of the bass entry about half-way through.

This is an exam­ple of why it may not be pos­si­ble to get an album’s worth of tunes out of this record­ing. How­ev­er it will be worth our try­ing to recov­er the stereo mas­ter tapes to see if the dis­tor­tion is on there too (these trans­fers are from a copy).

August 21, 2018   No Comments

Restoring an Ancient Gryphon

This month has seen the release of the new album by old friends of mine, Gryphon. The album, ReIn­ven­tion, is their first for 41 years: the band, re-formed and aug­ment­ed, though now with­out the pres­ence of co-founder Richard Har­vey, is poised, at the time of writ­ing, to per­form the new album in the Union Chapel.

In hon­our of the new release I thought it might be inter­est­ing to attempt to res­ur­rect what is the first record­ing I ever made of the band (I was their sound engi­neer in the stu­dio and on the road from 1974–5, cul­mi­nat­ing in the record­ing of the Rain­dance album across Mid­sum­mer 1975, which I engi­neered and co-pro­duced). This was a record­ing of the live per­for­mance giv­en at the Old Vic on 14 July 1974 – the first and, I believe the only, rock con­cert ever to have been held at the Old Vic or host­ed by the Nation­al The­atre. Gryphon had recent­ly been com­mis­sioned to write the music for Peter Hal­l’s Nation­al The­atre pro­duc­tion of The Tem­pest, which had pre­miered on March 5, and had record­ed their sec­ond album, Mid­night Mushrumps (a ref­er­ence to Pros­per­o’s speech, 5.1.39) includ­ing a suite based on the music for the play, with Dave Grin­st­ed at Chip­ping Nor­ton Stu­dios in the Cotswolds.

The Old Vic per­for­mance was right at the start of my involve­ment with the band and I was yet to be respon­si­ble for their sound live or in the stu­dio. How­ev­er for the occa­sion of the Old Vic per­for­mance I was able to obtain a Teac 3340 4‑track recorder and sit­u­at­ed it beside the mix­ing desk on the bal­cony. I had a pair of AKG D‑202s, excel­lent all-round dynam­ic mics, arranged in a coin­ci­dent pair as close to the cen­tre of the bal­cony as I could get, and record­ed these on one pair of tracks on the Teac; and in addi­tion I put a stereo feed from the board on the oth­er two tracks. The result­ing 4‑track tape gave me a clean feed of the PA mix, with the addi­tion of audi­ence reac­tion and ambi­ence from the room mics – par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive on the per­cus­sion. How­ev­er as we were on the bal­cony there was a delay between the PA feed and the room mics, so when I mixed-down the 4‑track to stereo I put a delay on the PA feed tracks to bring them into sync with the room mics. This also gave me the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a lit­tle fun, as I could vary the delay slight­ly to give a slight flang­ing effect on tracks like Estampie, which Richard Har­vey refers to in the intro as “a mediæ­val one-bar blues”, an effect which had been used on the orig­i­nal album record­ing for a sim­i­lar purpose.

The dis­ad­van­tage of the PA feed was that it includ­ed a bass DI run at con­sid­er­able lev­el, and as a result, Philip Nestor’s bass-play­ing fea­tures promi­nent­ly in the feed. So much so, in fact, that the bass caus­es some inter­mod­u­la­tion dis­tor­tion with oth­er instru­ments, ren­der­ing some of the pieces sad­ly vir­tu­al­ly unus­able. How­ev­er with some judi­cious use of EQ around the 80–200Hz mark the bass can be qui­etened-down enough for a rea­son­able bal­ance to be achieved in many cases.

Sad­ly the orig­i­nal 15in/s mix­down mas­ter of this record­ing is lost, and believed to be in Los Ange­les. How­ev­er I made a cas­sette copy of the three reels which I hung on to. They were BASF Chrome cas­settes and I record­ed them with a Dol­by B char­ac­ter­is­tic on a machine that I had evi­dent­ly been able to set the Dol­by lev­el on cor­rect­ly as the results are quite respectable. For these exper­i­ments I tran­scribed the cas­settes from a Tech­nics M260 kind­ly pro­vid­ed by Dun­can God­dard, who is a high­ly tal­ent­ed restor­er of vin­tage ana­logue recorders, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly sup­plied my trusty ReVox PR99 and A77.

I digi­tised the audio via a Focus­rite Scar­lett inter­face and brought it into Adobe Audi­tion, my DAW of choice for stereo audio pro­duc­tion. I cleaned up the noise floor with Audi­tion’s built-in noise reduc­tion tools and a cou­ple of Wave Arts restora­tion plug-ins, using the Audi­tion para­met­ric EQ to restrain the bass end. Here’s an exam­ple of the results: the mix of Estampie referred to above. And I hope you like it.

August 20, 2018   No Comments

Inside a Telefunken S600 Belt-Drive Turntable

I had­n’t intend­ed to end up with more than one turntable, but I now have no less than four, all of which work. The most recent one I’ve been work­ing on is a Tele­funken S600, which turns out to be an excep­tion­al­ly well-designed turntable with a num­ber of inge­nious bells and whistles.

As I detailed pre­vi­ous­ly, I want­ed to replace the stan­dard tone arm on a Lenco L75 turntable with an Orto­fon AS-212. These are found (amongst oth­er places) on Tele­funken S600 belt-dri­ve turnta­bles, so I sourced one from Ger­many to steal the arm — but fel­low mem­bers of inter­net groups I belonged to were hor­ri­fied that I would do this to an actu­al­ly rather nice turntable. So I relent­ed, and one of my cor­re­spon­dents found a New Old Stock AS-212 that I duly installed on the Lenco.

Mean­while, the S600 arrived from Ger­many, in rather a sor­ry state. Despite being very well packed, the plas­tic cov­er was cracked almost in two and the back of the arm had gone miss­ing along with the coun­ter­weight. The well-known inter­na­tion­al ship­ping com­pa­ny had both dam­aged it and mis-deliv­ered it: the incor­rect recip­i­ent had opened it and lost some of the bits. So when it got here I would­n’t have been able to pinch the arm for the Lenco anyway.

But now I had learned that these decks were actu­al­ly quite good, I decid­ed to attempt to repair it. And if it was actu­al­ly a good deck, I might want to use it as my main deck — in which case it need­ed a mod­i­fi­ca­tion to run at 78rpm.

Fix­ing the arm

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The big prob­lem was the arm itself. This con­sists of an S‑shaped arm tube with a bear­ing hous­ing on the end made of some mys­te­ri­ous hard rub­bery mate­r­i­al. A small tube con­tain­ing two sets of four 1.2mm ball bear­ings goes trans­verse­ly through the hous­ing and is held in place by two point­ed set-screws that have to be set up exact­ly right so that the arm sits cen­tral­ly in its hold­er with free­dom to move up and down but with no play. The hous­ing has an exten­sion stub on the back, and on to this mounts a thread­ed tube on to which the coun­ter­weight screws. In this case, the stub had snapped off the back of the bear­ing hous­ing and with it had gone the thread­ed tube and counterweight.

There were sev­er­al pos­si­ble solu­tions. Replace­ment bear­ing hous­ings are avail­able on eBay from time to time, made either of Del­rin or brass. The thread­ed tube is avail­able too. I could replace the bear­ing hous­ing (get the hous­ing off the arm tube, push the bear­ing tube through and put it into the new one, add the thread­ed tube and reat­tach the arm). I could con­sid­er get­ting a thread­ed tube and fit­ting some­thing inside it that I could push into the back of the bear­ing hous­ing and glue it in place. I got the bits to do the lat­ter, name­ly the thread­ed tube and some met­al-filled resin. But the pro­ce­dure seemed a bit dodgy, frankly. Would it stay stuck? Would the resin go where it should­n’t? Would it look decent? I looked for a new bear­ing hous­ing instead, but found only brass ones, which seemed like overkill to me — the black Del­rin ones did­n’t seem to to be avail­able at the time. But then a con­tact of mine kind­ly came up with a solu­tion: a com­plete replace­ment arm with the arm tube, bear­ing hous­ing (with bear­ings) and thread­ed tube — plus an orig­i­nal coun­ter­weight. Excel­lent. All I had to do was to fit the arm — and send the old one back to him.

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The replace­ment arm assem­bly duly arrived, and is shown here. The sup­pli­er very kind­ly taped up the bear­ing hous­ing so the balls could­n’t fall out (I had obtained some spares in case they did, but I did­n’t need them). First I need­ed to de-sol­der the arm leads, which meant get­ting the turntable out of its plinth.

This sim­ply required undo­ing three screws. Tele­funken real­ly designed these turnta­bles thought­ful­ly. You lift up the turntable, turn it ver­ti­cal­ly and then you can slide it into grooves in the plinth where it stands safe­ly so you can work on it.

img_2143Here’s the innards of the turntable, and there are a lot of things to talk about here in due course. Click on the image to see it up close. I de-sol­dered the arm wires (they attach to a ter­mi­nal strip bot­tom right next to the mut­ing relay) and then put the deck back in the plinth. I had armed myself with a pair of tiny cir­clip pli­ers with 1mm prongs to fit the lock-nuts sur­round­ing the bear­ing set-screws (one set of both on either side — you can see them in the bro­ken orig­i­nal arm image above) and now attempt­ed to loosen them. Pleas­ing­ly they loos­ened sur­pris­ing­ly eas­i­ly and I was then able to unscrew the set-screws enough to care­ful­ly lift the arm out. Thank­ful­ly the lit­tle ball bear­ings stayed in there too. So I taped it up ready to send off. The new arm went in with sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle trou­ble too. First I led the wires through the arm col­umn by putting them into a drink­ing straw and push­ing that down the hole in the cen­tre of the col­umn. Then, using a busi­ness card as a feel­er gauge to cen­tre the arm in the mount­ing, I held the arm in place and gen­tly tight­ened the screws. Then hold­ing the screw in posi­tion with a screw­driv­er I tight­ened the lock­nut, first on one side, then the oth­er. It took about three goes to cen­tre the arm suc­cess­ful­ly and lock the screws in place, but the result was an arm that exhib­it­ed neg­li­gi­ble resis­tance when mov­ing in its bear­ings. Exact­ly what was required. This pic shows the new arm in place minus the counterweight.

img_2188The turntable was now back more or less to its orig­i­nal spec­i­fi­ca­tion, give or take. I ran it up and found that it reached 33 or 45 very quick­ly con­sid­er­ing the weight of the beau­ti­ful­ly-bal­anced plat­ter, and the speeds were rock sol­id. The touch but­tons for speed and stop all worked as intend­ed and the speed con­trol trim­mer knobs worked well. I had­n’t even had to replace the elec­trolyt­ic capac­i­tors. (If I had need­ed to, the infor­ma­tion required – along with lots more about these turnta­bles – is here.)

Bells and whistles

This turntable has sev­er­al bells and whis­tles. The main ones are to do with the arm lift. This can be actu­at­ed man­u­al­ly with the lever — there is a Bow­den-style cable from the lifter lever to a flu­id-damped dash­pot under the arm rest. There is a lock­ing arrange­ment that only lets the lever lock in the down posi­tion if the turntable is under pow­er, and if you hit Stop it lifts up the arm (and when the arm is lift­ed, inci­den­tal­ly, the relay men­tioned ear­li­er mutes the audio).

It is also intend­ed to lift the arm at the end of a side. This is accom­plished in a rather inge­nious way. Look at the pho­to of the under­side above and you’ll see that there is a slot­ted cop­per arc just to the left of the motor con­trol board. This is attached to a very light­weight arm that is linked to the ton­earm, and swings across under the turntable as the arm tracks a disc. Just next to the cop­per arc (which we’ll come to in a moment) is a V‑shaped cutout. This is the clever bit. When the arm reach­es the end of a side, that V pass­es between a big frost­ed bulb (just below the cen­tre of the image) and a light-depen­dent resis­tor, shad­ing it from the light. (Why the V I don’t know: it will mean that the illu­mi­na­tion drops slow­ly rather than at once. Why?) This is detect­ed and hits Stop on the turntable, which also pow­ers-down a sole­noid to release the arm-lifter to lift the arm. That is what is sup­posed to hap­pen, but unfor­tu­nate­ly it did­n’t work. In fact it is a lit­tle sur­pris­ing that the turntable would run with­out hold­ing a but­ton down. The bulb had expired. img_2144It looks very much like a W5W auto bulb but it’s only sup­posed to take 100mA. Luck­i­ly there are W5W replace­ment LED bulbs that run that kind of cur­rent so I popped one in. On pow­er-up this duly illu­mi­nat­ed, and now the arm lift­ed and the turntable stopped some­what before the arm reached the end of its trav­el, cor­re­spond­ing to just before the locked groove on a disc.

While we are look­ing under the turntable, let’s look at what that cop­per arc does. As the arm swings, it stops the light from anoth­er, small­er bulb, direct­ly to the right of the main bear­ing, from falling on the end of a light-pipe — that lit­tle clear tube going up to the top of the deck and past the orange string (which is the inter­lock between the pow­er switch and the arm lifter). It ends in a lit­tle bezel on top of the deck. The light is thus vis­i­ble from above the deck except when it’s obscured by that cop­per arc — which means the light is vis­i­ble when the arm is beyond the plat­ter and when the light can shine through the three slots in the arc, which cor­re­spond to the edges of a 7in, 10in and 12in disc. So basi­cal­ly it tells you where to put the arm for the start of a disc.

I thought the dri­ve belt a lit­tle stretched and worn so obtained a replace­ment from thakker.eu (for the S500, a sim­pler ver­sion of this turntable, but with the same motor/subplatter arrangement).

A speed mod

With the deck returned to its orig­i­nal spec­i­fi­ca­tion, next came the mod­i­fi­ca­tion I want­ed to per­form — to get it to run at 78rpm as well as 33 and 45. I had asked about this in the Vinyl Engine online forum and a gen­tle­man had kind­ly looked at the cir­cuit dia­grams I had found and sug­gest­ed how to do it. It turns out that this design of turntable was actu­al­ly licensed from Philips, though Tele­funken made some exten­sive sub­se­quent mod­i­fi­ca­tions. It’s a DC ser­vo-con­trolled motor arrange­ment, and in some of the orig­i­nal Philips mod­els using the same motor and con­trol board design, the turntable can actu­al­ly do 78 rpm right out of the box — so there was no rea­son why this should­n’t work.

The answer, my respon­dent sug­gest­ed, was to put a resis­tor across the main 45rpm speed con­trol resis­tor (R133) to reduce its val­ue, then use the 45rpm speed knob to fine-tune the speed to 78. I decid­ed to go a lit­tle beyond that and put a trim­pot in series with the fixed resis­tor so that I could set the speed to 78 with the 45rpm speed con­trol knob in the cen­tre posi­tion as it was for 45, and not have to adjust any­thing unless I want­ed to run at a spe­cial speed like 80rpm for exam­ple. It took some exper­i­men­ta­tion to get the val­ues right: even­tu­al­ly I used a 47k? fixed resis­tor in series with a 10k? trim­mer. I sol­dered these to a minia­ture DPDT tog­gle switch that I mount­ed in the low­er right-hand side of the plinth, with a hole to access the trim­mer, and a LED and series resis­tor, pow­ered from the lamp sup­ply, on the oth­er poles of the switch so a red light comes up when you select 78. And it works beau­ti­ful­ly — here’s a Con­roy music library 10in 78 spin­ning at the right speed!

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Final­ly, I replaced the audio out­put cable, adding a pair of Neu­trik phonos in place of the orig­i­nal 5‑pin DIN, and ran a chas­sis ground wire along the audio cable with a spade con­nec­tor on the end. In fact this is of lim­it­ed use as the mains on the turntable goes via a dou­ble-pole switch straight into a dou­ble-wound trans­former: the chas­sis and all the audio grounds are con­nect­ed togeth­er and have no con­nec­tion to the mains side. Untan­gling this to pro­vide sep­a­rate audio and chas­sis ground turned out to be a real pain — to retain the mut­ing relay func­tion would have required seri­ous rewiring — so I left well alone, and in fact it works fine, and the chas­sis can be con­nect­ed to mains earth if desired.

The turntable has a cast stro­bo­scope at the edge with its own neon lamp, but of course it does­n’t include 78, so I print­ed out an image of an old Gar­rard strobe for now and that works fine — maybe I’ll pick up one of the Lenco met­al ones at some point.

In oper­a­tion

img_2197So, now to try the turntable out. I mount­ed the Shure M97xE in a skele­ton head­shell orig­i­nal­ly acquired for my TT-100 and set it up for 16mm over­hang (tricky as you can’t move the arm to the cen­tre spin­dle: I cut a piece of wire to length as a mea­sure) and lined it up with a car­tridge pro­trac­tor: it lined up per­fect­ly. Set­ting the track­ing weight and anti-skate accord­ing­ly, I played a tone disc with the arm at dif­fer­ent posi­tions and the wave­form and sound were clear and undis­tort­ed through­out. I then played some music, and found this under-recog­nised turntable, believed by many to out-per­form many oth­er belt-dri­ve turnta­bles of the peri­od such as those by Thorens, was a mar­vel­lous per­former, deliv­er­ing an excel­lent, open and sta­ble sound just as I would like it.

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The only prob­lem I have now is what to do with all these turnta­bles. I real­ly don’t want to get rid of either the Lenco or the Tele­funken and I think the for­mer will end up on the main sys­tem down­stairs while the Tele stays in my stu­dio for tran­scrip­tion (along­side the excel­lent Tech­nics SL‑7 lin­ear track­er, which does­n’t do 78).

November 3, 2016   17 Comments

Modifying an Idler Turntable

One of my activ­i­ties is trans­fer­ring archive music library mas­ter tapes to dig­i­tal, so they can be made more wide­ly avail­able again. This is not always straight­for­ward, and it’s some­times nec­es­sary to trans­fer excerpts from disc if the mas­ter tape is dam­aged in some way. To do this requires a decent vinyl play­back sys­tem. This arti­cle is about how I put one together.

Some­times there are prob­lems with the old tapes — such as oxide or back­ing shed­ding, and in par­tic­u­lar when the back­ing binder becomes sticky and stops the tape pass­ing through the machine. Anoth­er issue is the adhe­sive used in splic­ing tape becom­ing sticky (although it is specif­i­cal­ly sup­posed not to) and this can result in oxide frag­ments being pulled off the front of a track result­ing in dropouts. And unlike the solu­tions for sticky binder and shed­ding (such as bak­ing the tape or run­ning it through a white spir­it or iso­propyl alco­hol-soaked pad) sticky splic­ing tape caus­ing dam­age is dif­fi­cult to avoid, even if wind­ing very carefully.

On more than one occa­sion, prob­lems like this, or major dropouts, tape dam­age and oth­er issues, mean that a (usu­al­ly short) sec­tion of the mas­ter tape is unre­cov­er­able. The solu­tion, then, is to try and find a copy of the library disc pressed from the mas­ter, cap­ture the appro­pri­ate sec­tion, match it in lev­el and oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics and then edit it into the ver­sion trans­ferred from tape.

A bet­ter vinyl play­back system

To do this effec­tive­ly requires a decent record deck, and while the unit I’ve had for some time — a Numark TT-100, essen­tial­ly a DJ turntable — does a good work­man­like job, and has the ben­e­fit of 78rpm (which is some­times nec­es­sary) as well as 33 1/3 and 45, I though it worth spend­ing a bit of time and mon­ey acquir­ing a supe­ri­or vinyl play­back system.

There are basi­cal­ly three types of ways in which the motor can dri­ve the plat­ter in a turntable: Idler Dri­ve, Belt Dri­ve and Direct Dri­ve. They’re illus­trat­ed in the  dia­gram above. It should be not­ed that there is often more than one way of imple­ment­ing all three of these meth­ods: Direct Dri­ve — often found in DJ turnta­bles — can involve the actu­al plat­ter being part of the motor, rather than requir­ing the “intri­cate gears” sug­gest­ed above; with Belt Dri­ve the belt may go round the entire plat­ter and not a sub-plat­ter; and in the case of idler dri­ve the idler may be hor­i­zon­tal (as shown — Gar­rard used this) or ver­ti­cal (as in the Lenco designs).

The Lenco L75

I decid­ed on an idler design as these are high­ly-regard­ed for their sound qual­i­ty. While it would have been nice to have, say, a Gar­rard 401 tran­scrip­tion turntable, this was well out of my price range and I set­tled instead for a Swiss-made Lenco L75. I found one for a good price and a rel­a­tive­ly short dri­ve to Nor­wich. I have nev­er actu­al­ly owned one of these before, though I remem­ber one from the school music room, many years ago (they were com­mon in edu­ca­tion­al institutions).

As soon as I got it home I reviewed it visu­al­ly, and all looked good, so I pow­ered it up and it ran fine, solid­ly at each speed. It had a rather cheap and nasty orig­i­nal plinth that (still) needs to be replaced with a prop­er, sol­id one. These decks per­form best with­out the ben­e­fit of the springs pro­vid­ed sup­port­ing it in the plinth, so I removed them.

Updates: V‑blocks and wiring

Then I looked at the so-called “V‑blocks” in the arm sus­pen­sion. NOTE that I did­n’t use the orig­i­nal Lenco arm in the end, but this info may be help­ful if you are. The arm has a knife-edge bear­ing that allows it to swing up and down. The knife edge, attached to the arm tube, rests in two V‑shaped blocks, one either side, and they are noto­ri­ous for degrad­ing. Sure enough, mine had decayed into sol­id lumps that looked like yel­lowed teeth. I care­ful­ly scraped them out, cleared the holes, and replaced them with a pair of “desmo” V‑blocks sourced from eBay. The whole oper­a­tion was remark­ably straightforward.

Next I reviewed the wiring. The audio cabling cen­tres around a ter­mi­nal block on the under­side of the deck plate and here the wires from the ton­earm head­shell meet the shield­ed cables going to the out­side world. The left and right sig­nals and their respec­tive ground leads need to by elec­tri­cal­ly sep­a­rate from the chas­sis ground (a yel­low wire also lead­ing out of the plinth): in my case they were, but I replaced the coax with mod­ern cable and the DIN plug on the end with two gold-plat­ed phonos. The met­al body of the arm is ground­ed to the chassis.

On the mains side, the cir­cuit is sim­ple: Live and Neu­tral come in, one leg goes via a switch to one side of the motor and the oth­er side goes to the motor. This might have been fine 40 years ago but today, with old elec­tri­cal sys­tems, we prob­a­bly want a bet­ter approach. The sug­ges­tion in the Lenco Heav­en forum — where all the experts on the sub­ject of these turnta­bles hang out — is to fol­low the wiring shown below, drawn by Stephen Clifford:

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Not shown above is the fact that the yel­low (chas­sis ground) lead is extend­ed out of the plinth to be con­nect­ed to the appro­pri­ate con­nec­tor on a phono pre­amp if required.

Impos­si­ble hum

Hav­ing car­ried out all the re-wiring, I installed a car­tridge and ran it up. And it hummed, bad­ly. Now you do not need the yel­low lead con­nect­ed to ground on the phono pre­amp and the ground con­nect­ed in the mains plug as it will cause a hum loop, but in this case I could not get the hum to go away, what­ev­er I did. I tried clean­ing the head­shell and arm con­tacts, dif­fer­ent earth­ing schemes, dif­fer­ent car­tridges and even dif­fer­ent pre­amps, but to no avail.

It seemed like­ly to me that the prob­lem lay in the wiring to the head­shell con­nec­tor but this seemed fair­ly hard to address. In addi­tion (and no doubt purists will hate me for say­ing so), I found the orig­i­nal arm rather clunky. So, even though I had car­ried out the task of replac­ing the V‑blocks et al, I decid­ed to replace the tone arm.

The Orto­fon AS-212 as a replace­ment arm

as_212_vintage_page-2There are only a cou­ple of tone arms that will slot more or less straight into a Lenco, ie they are the right length etc to fit. The one that appealed to me was an arm made by Dan­ish man­u­fac­tur­er Orto­fon (famed for their pick­up car­tridges) the AS-212. But where to find one? Hunt­ing around net­ted me a gen­tle­man in Ger­many sell­ing a Tele­funken S600 deck — these were fit­ted with this arm — at a good price.

Sad­ly, when it arrived, the rear of the arm had dis­ap­peared and the lid of the turntable was cracked — a result of the ship­ping com­pa­ny mis-deliv­er­ing it and the erro­neous recip­i­ents open­ing it.

Not only that, when I men­tioned my inten­tions on a Face­book group I belong to spe­cial­is­ing in vin­tage equip­ment, they were hor­ri­fied. The Tele­funken S600 was an excel­lent belt-dri­ve deck, they said, prob­a­bly out-per­form­ing the Thorens decks of the time, and should not be van­dalised and left ‘arm­less’. So I decid­ed to repair it, and see if I could find a spare AS-212 arm for the Lenco, then keep the one I pre­ferred and sell the oth­er. The Tele­funken sto­ry is for anoth­er article.

Imme­di­ate­ly up came an offer on the Vinyl Engine forum of a com­plete AS-212 arm, boxed: a replace­ment arm for a Tele­funken. At the same time I received an offer of a replace­ment arm­tube, bear­ing and coun­ter­weight. I could use the for­mer on the Lenco and the lat­ter to repair the Telefunken.

Prepar­ing the arm for fitting

The new-old-stock com­plete AS-212 assem­bly duly arrived, and I acquired a mount­ing base for the new arm to fit the Lenco deck­plate hole — the Orto­fon is a dif­fer­ent diam­e­ter and thus needs a dif­fer­ent fit­ting. These are avail­able on eBay: I bought a sil­ver-coloured one.

Before fit­ting to the Lenco, the new arm need­ed some dis­man­tling. I decid­ed to use the Lenco arm lifter — pret­ty much oblig­a­tory, in fact, with an AS-212 designed for an S600, as the Orto­fon arm comes with an oil-damped lift­ing cylin­der with just a bot­tom pin that is sup­posed to fit into the S600 lifter mech­a­nism, a clever Bow­den-style cable arrange­ment: thus it does not include a com­plete lifter sys­tem. So I removed the lifter cylin­der and arm rest, leav­ing a 10mm hole in the body of the arm, which I decid­ed to fill with a suit­ably-sized cir­cu­lar bub­ble spir­it-lev­el, secured with the exist­ing set-screw. Adja­cent to it in this pic­ture is the AS-212’s nat­ty no-con­tact mag­net­ic anti-skate sys­tem. The lit­tle hole for­mer­ly took a pin on the lifter to stop it rotat­ing. I found a use for it later.

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I also removed the arm clip from the AS-212 (the rod to the left of the above image is the back of it) so as to use the Lenco one, which is the cor­rect diam­e­ter to hold the arm securely.

Next step was to mount the arm col­umn in the new base. This was eas­i­ly done. I set the height up by attach­ing a car­tridge and adjust­ing the height so that the arm was hor­i­zon­tal with the sty­lus rest­ing on a disc. I lined up the body of the arm to be par­al­lel to the edge of the deck-plate and it looked great. I tight­ened the set-screw and there it was.

A few modifications

An ini­tial prob­lem was that the arm wiring was not as long as the orig­i­nal Lenco, so I moved the audio con­nec­tion tag strip to some­where near­er to the arm so it reached, and under the deck plate instead of on top.

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This pic­ture also shows the revised pow­er wiring men­tioned ear­li­er. I made a new hole in the plinth for the audio cables to exit so that they did­n’t run par­al­lel to the pow­er cable.

The Lenco lifter actu­a­tor lever is quite long, and actu­al­ly fouled the arm when at rest, so I short­ened it. Actu­al­ly, I was going to bend it out­wards but the top bit snapped off. Ooops. It’s still easy to reach and use: a short piece of black heat­shrink tub­ing and it looks the same as the orig­i­nal, but shorter.

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The biggest chal­lenge was get­ting the lifter to work. The Lenco lifter arm is quite deep, and when low­ered rest­ed on the top of the Orto­fon plat­form long before the sty­lus was able to reach the record. I thought this could be solved sim­ply by short­en­ing the lifter arm to avoid the edge of the plat­form, but this was a Bad Idea as the arm could drop down and hit the deck plate between rest and the start of a disc, and tend­ed to fall off the end of the lifter. The solu­tion instead was to file the under­side of the end of the lifter arm where it over­hung the plat­form to about half its depth. This allowed the lifter to drop far enough to allow the sty­lus to reach the record. All the ele­ments of the arm are able to be adjust­ed for height: the lifter arm, the arm rest, and of course the arm column.

It’s worth not­ing that there is a small caveat here. The Lenco arm rest, which I’m using, allows the arm to be unclipped by mov­ing it ver­ti­cal­ly. It is pos­si­ble, once unclipped, for the arm to swing out­ward, where­upon it will fall off the lifter arm and could drop down and clout the car­tridge on the pow­er switch or the deck plate itself. I made this impos­si­ble by insert­ing a thin rod into a hole left by part of the orig­i­nal AS-212 lifter mech­a­nism and bend­ing it over and above the arm to stop this from hap­pen­ing. You can see the hole in the close-up of the bub­ble lev­el a cou­ple of images up. While I was at it, I added a cut-down self-adhe­sive foot to the right-hand front of the plat­form so that the arm could­n’t drop if it went back­wards. Anoth­er approach would have been to rein­stall the Orto­fon arm clip, which opens towards the turntable and is thus less like­ly to allow the arm to go back­wards. How­ev­er this would require remov­ing the Lenco arm-rest, leav­ing a hole in the deck plate.

Next I need­ed to mount the car­tridge more accu­rate­ly. The AS-212 needs a 16mm over­hang — ie if you swing the arm across to be over the cen­tral spin­dle, the sty­lus should be 16mm to the left of its cen­tre. This proved to be quite dif­fi­cult to do: the slots in the head­shell only just allowed it with the car­tridge as far back as it would go. But it worked, and I was also able to set up the null points suc­cess­ful­ly with a pro­trac­tor, with the car­tridge par­al­lel to the groove at both points. The cor­rect way of fit­ting the car­tridge is to use the two thread­ed rods on the under­side of the man­u­al lifter prong, but in my case, although I have sev­er­al Orto­fon head­shells, none of them would actu­al­ly hold the Shure M97xE, either because they were too long, too short or there was­n’t room for the nuts. So I mount­ed the car­tridge with a pair of bolts and fit­ted the man­u­al lifter sep­a­rate­ly (see below).

Play­ing some records

giWith that done, I car­ried out a final check of the set­tings, includ­ing: check­ing that the arm real­ly was hor­i­zon­tal while play­ing and thus the Sty­lus Rake Angle was cor­rect (I think this is a bet­ter way of look­ing at it than by address­ing the Ver­ti­cal Track­ing Angle, and I don’t have a micro­scope); set­ting up the track­ing weight for my Shure M97xE; and adjust­ing the AS-212’s ele­gant mag­net­ic anti-skat­ing setting.

And then I played a record for the first time — but not a ter­ri­bly excit­ing one. It was the B‑side of a KPM Music Library test press­ing of pieces by Richard Har­vey, con­sist­ing sole­ly of a 1kHz tone. I was able to lis­ten to the tone qual­i­ty at var­i­ous points across the disc and was very pleased with how pure the tone was at all points.

Then to play some actu­al music: the con­tent side of the same disc. I was imme­di­ate­ly very impressed with the wide fre­quen­cy range appar­ent on play­back, and a good tight feel­ing to the bass end. The over­all sound was very clear, clean and detailed, and the stereo imag­ing nice and sta­ble. Excellent.

My view is that this is an excep­tion­al com­bi­na­tion of arm and deck and I am very pleased with the results so far, though I need to give it a lot more crit­i­cal lis­tens. But in the­o­ry, all that’s need­ed now is a new plinth that does the deck justice.

I have, inci­den­tal­ly, kept all the Lenco bits I’ve removed, includ­ed spares of items I mod­i­fied (eg the lifter actu­a­tor lever and the lifter arm) so that if it ever needs to be restored to its orig­i­nal spec, this can be done.

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October 11, 2016   2 Comments

Gryphon At Bilston

Just over a year after see­ing the re-formed Gryphon at The Sta­bles near Mil­ton Keynes, I was lucky enough to catch them live at the Robin 2, a cav­ernous West Mid­lands venue some­what rem­i­nis­cent of some­where like the Sta­tion Inn in Nashville, in one of a short series of live gigs cul­mi­nat­ing in a per­for­mance at the gor­geous Union Chapel. Sad­ly I could­n’t make the lat­ter, but it is being pro­fes­sion­al­ly video-record­ed so hope­ful­ly we’ll all be able to see it at some point.

A Brief Historie

For those of you who don’t know the band — and if you do, you can skip to the sec­tion head­ed Robin 2 below — Gryphon was formed in the ear­ly 1970s and was a kind of crossover act merg­ing medi­ae­val and Renais­sance music and instru­ments, with bas­soon, flute, gui­tars, per­cus­sion (and ulti­mate­ly drums) and bass for an effect that var­ied from folk music to rocked-up Ear­ly Music to some­thing approach­ing Prog Rock. A tru­ly mar­vel­lous com­bi­na­tion, I assure you, as any of the five albums pro­duced in the 1970s (and all still avail­able, along with var­i­ous col­lec­tions of pre­vi­ous­ly unre­leased tracks and broad­cast per­for­mances) will attest.

At the heart of the band were two peo­ple I went to school with (albeit two years below me), mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Richard Har­vey and gui­tarist Graeme Tay­lor, one or oth­er or both of whom, often with Bri­an Gul­land, penned much of the orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al that appeared on the albums such as the char­ac­ter­is­tic intri­cate instru­men­tal suites (Juniper Suite on their epony­mous first album, for exam­ple, being cred­it­ed Tay­lor-Har­vey-Gul­land) and longer works while Tay­lor wrote often del­i­cate, fine­ly-wrought instru­men­tals and songs with wild­ly pun­ning and semi-obscure lyrics. The oth­er band mem­bers con­tributed their own mate­r­i­al too, to great effect, and com­bined with their set­tings of tra­di­tion­al songs and dances, Gryphon was entire­ly unique. I was lucky enough to tour with the band for a year as their sound engi­neer, live and in the stu­dio (1974–5, includ­ing US and UK tours sup­port­ing Yes as well as col­lege gigs, cul­mi­nat­ing with the record­ing of their fourth album, Rain­dance, which I also co-produced).

The band was effec­tive­ly wiped out by the changes in British pop­u­lar music in the mid-70s that result­ed in instru­men­tal vir­tu­os­i­ty — or indeed almost any lev­el of musi­cal abil­i­ty above that of a mem­ber of the audi­ence — being dep­re­cat­ed. Thank­ful­ly the albums nev­er real­ly went away, and even the unre­leased tracks appeared on Col­lec­tion CDs in due course (includ­ing sev­er­al from Rain­dance, which was essen­tial­ly cut to rib­bons by the record com­pa­ny, omit­ting a few gems).

Ref­or­ma­tion

Every­thing seems to come around again these days, and over 30 years after their final live appear­ance, the band re-formed in June 2009 for a sold-out reunion con­cert at the Queen Eliz­a­beth Hall on Lon­don’s South Bank fea­tur­ing the orig­i­nal core mem­ber­ship of Richard Har­vey (wood­winds, key­boards), Bri­an Gul­land (wood­winds, key­boards, vocals), Graeme Tay­lor (gui­tars, vocals), and Dave Ober­lé (per­cus­sion and vocals). They were joined by Jon Davie — the bass-play­er from the band’s fifth album, Trea­son — and new arrival, tal­ent­ed mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist and vet­er­an music library/film com­pos­er Gra­ham Pres­kett on a var­ied col­lec­tion of key­board and stringed instruments.

Every­one hoped that the one-off reunion would be fol­lowed by a tour, but it was not until 2015 that this actu­al­ly got off the ground with a rel­a­tive­ly short series of gigs — all of which were extreme­ly well attend­ed and showed that the band had lost none of its vigour and orig­i­nal­i­ty. Indeed, the pres­ence of Pres­kett at last made it pos­si­ble to per­form works that had been imprac­ti­cal to play live pre­vi­ous­ly, such as Juniper Suite.

The hope was that there would be addi­tion­al dates in 2016 and this indeed came to be, but, it tran­spired, with­out the pres­ence of Richard Har­vey, who announced in the Spring that he would be leav­ing the band due to a cramped sched­ule and to pur­sue his own mul­ti-faceted career. And indeed it is, with a major tour with Hans Zim­mer and many oth­er activ­i­ties on the horizon.

Robin 2

Gryphon at Bilston, August 14 2016. Photo by Paul Lucas

(Most of) Gryphon at Bil­ston, August 14 2016. L to R: Kei­th Thomp­son, Dave Ober­le, Graeme Tay­lor, Rory McFar­lane, Bri­an Gul­land. Where’s Pres­kett? Pho­to by Paul Lucas

As a result, the band that has been tour­ing in 2016 has some changes in line­up. Pres­kett is in there — he is a major asset — and on bass we find Rory McFar­lane, a tal­ent­ed ses­sion musi­cian and com­pos­er who has also plen­ty of band expe­ri­ence with Richard Thomp­son. It would be sil­ly to say that “Richard Har­vey’s place in Gryphon has been tak­en by Kei­th Thomp­son”, because Kei­th is an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly tal­ent­ed Ear­ly Music wood­wind spe­cial­ist in his own right with a his­to­ry going back to the 1970s and includ­ing the excep­tion­al City Wait­es: he brings to the band a lev­el of tal­ent and exper­tise that is extreme­ly impres­sive. The com­bi­na­tion of musi­cal skills rep­re­sent­ed by this incar­na­tion of the band is unsur­passed and deliv­ers the instru­men­tal fire­works we might expect from a group of musi­cians who are all at the peak of their powers.

And thus, final­ly, to the Robin 2 gig. The per­for­mance fell into two sets and fol­lowed a sim­i­lar struc­ture to the gigs of 2015, with pri­mar­i­ly pieces from the first album in the first half — Open­ing Num­ber to begin with, fol­lowed by Kem­p’s Jig, The Astrologer (with an amus­ing con­test of vocals between Gul­land and Ober­lé), and the afore­men­tioned Juniper Suite. Next up was The Unqui­et Grave, to which Bri­an Gul­land gave an inter­est­ing intro­duc­tion, men­tion­ing Vaugh­an Williams’ Five Vari­a­tions on Dives and Lazarus, which employs the same tune, while The Unqui­et Grave itself is often heard with a dif­fer­ent melody. I always won­dered about that… The set was round­ed off by Dubbel Dutch from the Mid­night Mushrumps (sec­ond) album and Estampie from the first.

Brian Gulland at Bilston, August 14 2016. Photo by Paul Lucas

Bri­an Gul­land at Bil­ston, August 14 2016. Pho­to by Paul Lucas

Lat­er mate­r­i­al per­me­at­ed the sec­ond set, lead­ing off with a med­ley from the third album, Red Queen to Gryphon Three with its chess ref­er­ences. Sec­ond up was the Graeme Tay­lor-penned and atmos­pher­ic Ash­es, orig­i­nal­ly removed from the fourth album, Rain­dance, to my dis­tinct annoy­ance, and one of my favourites of the band’s songs. And they very kind­ly gave me a shout-out for the track, which was most kind! The per­for­mance was com­plete with bird­song: when we record­ed the track orig­i­nal­ly, in the hot mid­sum­mer of 1975, I record­ed Bri­an Gul­land’s vocals out­side in the open with a stereo pair of mics, with him stand­ing far enough away that I could crank up the gain and cap­ture the nat­ur­al bird­song. Fur­ther pieces in the set includ­ed more from the first album, some dances orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten by High Renais­sance Ger­man com­pos­er Michael Prae­to­rius for his enor­mous set of dances known as Terp­si­chore (and which, we should note, are yet to be record­ed, hint hint..), Lament from the third album and round­ing off with the thun­der­ous romp that is Ethe­lion from the sec­ond album. An encore con­sist­ed of a very amus­ing com­bi­na­tion of tunes lead­ing off with Le Cam­bri­oleur est dans le Mou­choir, (a strange lit­tle piece from Rain­dance, co-writ­ten by Tay­lor and bass play­er of the time Mal­colm Ben­nett) fol­lowed by a touch of Pres­ket­tised Gersh­win and then Tiger Rag.

The over­all per­for­mance was excel­lent and par­tic­u­lar cred­it needs to be giv­en to Kei­th Thomp­son, new to the band and with only one pre­vi­ous live per­for­mance with the band under his belt at this point. Gryphon has an unusu­al, if not actu­al­ly unique, com­bi­na­tion of what would tra­di­tion­al­ly have been called “loud” and “soft” instru­ments. In addi­tion to being dif­fi­cult to get a live sound bal­ance on, as I know from my own expe­ri­ence, the stage mon­i­tor­ing is par­tic­u­lar­ly tricky, and Kei­th was sand­wiched between Gra­ham Pres­kett on one side and Graeme Tay­lor on the oth­er, nei­ther of whom are like­ly to have been par­tic­u­lar­ly qui­et in the mon­i­tors. Despite this, and a cav­ernous hall with a huge and ven­er­a­ble PA that was real­ly designed for out-and-out rock bands that swal­lowed him a lit­tle from time to time, Kei­th’s per­for­mance came across as live­ly and excit­ing and full of virtuosity.

Graeme Taylor at Bilston, August 14 2016. Photo by Paul Lucas

Graeme Tay­lor at Bil­ston, August 14 2016. Pho­to by Paul Lucas

Kei­th and Bri­an Gul­land there­fore han­dled the wood­winds ancient and mod­ern, in the same way as Har­vey and Gul­land would have done in ear­li­er times; but in addi­tion the key­board axis was between Bri­an and Gra­ham Pres­kett, with Pres­kett also con­tribut­ing fid­dle and oth­er stringed instru­ments. The mul­ti-instru­men­tal inter­play between the three of them was one of the most inter­est­ing aspects of this new line­up and I am sure that they will only become even tighter and more daz­zling as they work longer togeth­er. Mean­while, Graeme Tay­lor’s gui­tar exper­tise seems only to increase every time I hear him — and while we’re on the sub­ject of Graeme, don’t miss the lat­est release from his ‘oth­er’ band, Home Ser­vice, whose new album A New Ground is def­i­nite­ly worth a lis­ten. Bri­an Gul­land, mean­while, con­tin­ues his endear­ing hir­sute antics on stage, and on this occa­sion han­dled a good deal of the intro­duc­tions, and in some cas­es — The Unqui­et Grave referred to above for exam­ple — we learn more about the num­bers, which is a good thing in my view, as long as it’s not too exten­sive (which it wasn’t).

Dave Ober­lé was excel­lent through­out, not only on drums/percussion but on vocals too, where his style suits the mate­r­i­al down to the ground. From where I was sit­ting, I could­n’t actu­al­ly see bassist Rory McFar­lane but I could cer­tain­ly hear him, pro­vid­ing a sol­id bot­tom end to the sound and always spot-on with tim­ing. You can’t real­ly think of Gryphon as hav­ing a “rhythm sec­tion” as such, as Ober­lé’s role is gen­er­al­ly more per­cus­sion than drums, but McFar­lane under­lines the impor­tance of good live­ly yet sol­id bass play­ing with this material.

Over­all, then, an excep­tion­al per­for­mance and one that bodes very well for the future, as the band evi­dent­ly intend to stick around. As I not­ed at the top, the Union Chapel gig is being video record­ed, and I hope to see that released at some point. And there is even talk of an album in the works — 40 years after the last one. Excel­lent going.

 

September 12, 2016   No Comments

Gryphon at The Stables

Wednes­day May 13th saw a per­for­mance by Gryphon at the Sta­bles near Mil­ton Keynes. The gig was one of a rel­a­tive­ly brief series of per­for­mances under the ban­ner “None the Wis­er” that the band, orig­i­nal­ly active in the 1970s, re-formed to give.

The per­son­nel on the tour rep­re­sent­ed a fair approx­i­ma­tion to the orig­i­nal line­up of Bri­an Gul­land (bas­soon, Renais­sance wood­winds, vocals and a touch of key­board), Jon Davie (bass), Dave Ober­lé (per­cus­sion and vocals), Graeme Tay­lor (gui­tars), and Richard Har­vey (key­boards, wood­winds, man­dolin, clar­inet, Renais­sance wood­winds, dul­cimer, ukulele, flute), aug­ment­ed by an addi­tion­al tal­ent­ed mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist and com­pos­er in the form of Gra­ham Pres­kett (key­boards, vio­lin, 12-string gui­tar, viola).

The tour cul­mi­nat­ed with a per­for­mance at the Union Chapel in Lon­don, which I would love to have attend­ed: the pic­ture above (by Julian Bajz­ert, used by per­mis­sion) was tak­en there (the band appears almost in the order list­ed above, but with Richard Har­vey far right).

The Sta­bles, not a loca­tion I’ve vis­it­ed before, is an impres­sive venue, although per­haps best suit­ed to the­atri­cal work. The stage lay­out required the PA to be placed per­ilous­ly close to the band – and to Richard Har­vey in par­tic­u­lar – which mean that a num­ber of high-gain mics were point­ing more or less direct­ly at the PA. Speak­ing from expe­ri­ence as Gryphon’s sound engi­neer (live and in the stu­dio, dur­ing 1974–75) the band is tricky to mix at the best of times, with its unique com­bi­na­tion of “soft” and “loud” instru­ments (as they would have been called in the Renais­sance peri­od) and a near­by PA no doubt made the mix at the Sta­bles dif­fi­cult in the extreme.

For those who have not encoun­tered Gryphon pre­vi­ous­ly, the band began in the ear­ly 1970s when Roy­al Col­lege of Music grad­u­ates Richard Har­vey and Bri­an Gul­land start­ed as a duo play­ing tra­di­tion­al Eng­lish folk with Renais­sance and medi­ae­val ten­den­cies. They were soon joined by gui­tarist Graeme Tay­lor and per­cus­sion­ist Dave Ober­lé, and then by bass-play­ers Philip Nestor, Mal­colm Markovich, for­mer­ly Ben­nett, and final­ly (1975–77) Jonathan Davie.

GryphonTheir first (epony­mous) album, record­ed in 1973 by Adam Skeap­ing on 4‑track in a tiny stu­dio in Barnes, com­bined live­ly approach­es to tra­di­tion­al songs flavoured with recorders and crumhorns — earn­ing the band a “Medi­ae­val Rock” label — with some orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al by Harvey. mushrumps
The sec­ond album, Mid­night Mushrumps (1974), fea­tured a side-long suite based on the band’s music for Sir Peter Hall’s The Tem­pest at the Old Vic. The third, Red Queen to Gryphon Three (also 1974) fea­tured a 4‑part suite the­o­ret­i­cal­ly based on a game of chess. This was fol­lowed by Rain­dance in 1975 and final­ly, fol­low­ing a move from Transat­lantic Records to EMI/Harvest, Trea­son in 1977 – after which the band was sad­ly eclipsed, as were many tal­ent­ed British artists at the time, by so-called “new wave” artists who eschewed instru­men­tal virtuosity.

Gryphon_RaindanceI was lucky enough to work with the band as their sound engi­neer on the road and often in the stu­dio, cov­er­ing a col­lege tour in mid-1974, the US 1974 and UK 1975 tours as sup­port band to Yes, and cul­mi­nat­ing in record­ing and co-pro­duc­ing Rain­dance at Sawmills stu­dios in Golant, Corn­wall, across mid­sum­mer 1975.

There had always been hopes in sev­er­al quar­ters that some incar­na­tion of the band would get back togeth­er at some point, and the out­fit has always had a loy­al and exten­sive inter­net fol­low­ing. The albums are all avail­able, along with addi­tion­al albums cov­er­ing BBC ses­sions and “lost tracks” (such as those we record­ed for Rain­dance but were not allowed by the record com­pa­ny to include on the album — yes, it still annoys me). Hopes for a reunion were grant­ed in 2009 with a one-off con­cern at the Queen Eliz­a­beth Hall in Lon­don which was excep­tion­al­ly well-received, and saw the addi­tion to the line­up of com­pos­er and mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Gra­ham Pres­kett for the first time.

The May 2015 tour, in prepa­ra­tion for some time, was rel­a­tive­ly lim­it­ed in extent but did enable a good many peo­ple to get to one of the very well-attend­ed performances.

The first half of the Sta­bles per­for­mance con­sist­ed pri­mar­i­ly of pieces from the first album – kick­ing off, appro­pri­ate­ly enough, with Open­ing Num­ber, fol­lowed by the cau­tion­ary tale of The Astrologer with vocals by Ober­lé in fine form, then an instru­men­tal mélange of the tra­di­tion­al Kemp’s Jig and a medi­ae­val Estampie. This was fol­lowed by the band’s ren­der­ing of a per­son­al favourite, also with vocals by Ober­lé , The Unqui­et Grave, an Eng­lish folk song (Child Bal­lad 78) dat­ing back to around 1400 in which a young man mourns his dead lover to a some­what exces­sive degree, to which Gryphon add a par­tic­u­lar­ly eerie mid­dle sec­tion. Lis­ten­ers to this piece with a clas­si­cal back­ground may note that the tune Gryphon use for this song (sev­er­al tunes have been used tra­di­tion­al­ly) is also com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Dives & Lazarus (Child Bal­lad 56 – see Vaugh­an Williams’ vari­a­tions on this theme).

Next up was a ren­der­ing by Graeme of his solo piece, Cross­ing the Stiles. All Graeme’s pieces for the band were tricky in one way or anoth­er and often com­plex, and hear­ing him per­form this, one can only con­clude that his gui­tar vir­tu­os­i­ty has some­how increased over the years: his play­ing was exceed­ing­ly impressive.

It was fol­lowed by what I believe was the first live per­for­mance of Richard Harvey’s orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion from the first album, and the track that turned me on to the band all those years ago, when a friend played me this unknown track he had record­ed from a John Peel pro­gramme: Juniper Suite. If it hadn’t been notice­able ear­li­er in the set, it rapid­ly became clear here how ben­e­fi­cial the addi­tion of Gra­ham Pres­kett to the orig­i­nal line­up has been: the pres­ence of extra key­board resources, for exam­ple, freed Richard Har­vey to focus more on his world-lead­ing wood­wind exper­tise, and made doing pieces like Juniper Suite live pos­si­ble. Pres­kett, like Har­vey, is also an excel­lent mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist, and the addi­tion of vio­lin and vio­la, for exam­ple, made quite an impres­sive dif­fer­ence at times, adding tex­tures that were not pre­vi­ous­ly part of the Gryphon sound but that fit­ted in excep­tion­al­ly well.

gryphon_tour_adDur­ing the course of the first set we also enjoyed some sur­pris­ing­ly ‘bas­so pro­fun­do’ vocals from Bri­an Gul­land as well as his wood­winds and organ work. The ensem­ble piece Dubbel Dutch – a minia­ture suite in itself – from the sec­ond album closed the first half.

The sec­ond half opened with a ver­sion of Mid­night Mushrumps in all its album-side length glo­ry, that often sound­ed pret­ty much exact­ly as it did when I mixed it live myself over 40 years ago.

The band then played one of my favourite ‘lost’ tracks, Ash­es, which we orig­i­nal­ly record­ed at Sawmills in 1975 for the Rain­dance album but which nev­er made it on to the disc – and to my great sur­prise and plea­sure, Bri­an very kind­ly ded­i­cat­ed it to me, which was extreme­ly heart-warm­ing. Thanks, guys! (The orig­i­nal record­ing is on the sec­ond Col­lec­tions disc if you want to check it out.)

redqueen2gryphon3 The set con­tin­ued with a cou­ple of excerpts from Red Queen to Gryphon Three – one based on Lament and then a med­ley of oth­er themes from the album, all of which were expert­ly per­formed through­out, with plen­ty of Har­vey recorder twid­dly bits and some great bass-play­ing from Jon Davie, while Dave Ober­lé fired off impres­sive rounds of per­cus­sion as appro­pri­ate. Indeed, the phrase ‘vir­tu­ouso per­for­mances’ can hap­pi­ly be applied to every­one in the band and to the whole set.

Encores includ­ed a mar­vel­lous new suite of rocked-up Renais­sance dances of the kind for which Gryphon are per­haps tra­di­tion­al­ly best-known, out­class­ing even the likes of The Bones Of All Men and in this case rely­ing quite a bit on Michael Prae­to­rius’s Terp­si­chore, fol­lowed by a remark­able piece that, start­ing off from a cer­tain Cam­bri­oleur (Le Cam­bri­oleur est Dans le Mou­choir, from Rain­dance), wove togeth­er sev­er­al dis­parate threads includ­ing George Gershwin’s Prom­e­nade (Walk­ing the Dog), and fea­tured some exquis­ite clar­inet work from Har­vey, exchang­ing rapid-fire lines with Pres­kett, to end with a spir­it­ed inter­pre­ta­tion of the very ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry jazz stan­dard Tiger Rag.

Over­all, I found it a mag­nif­i­cent and quite mag­i­cal per­for­mance from every­body concerned.

Main image: Gryphon at Union Chapel, Lon­don, May 2015, by Julian Bajz­ert, used by per­mis­sion. L to R: Bri­an Gul­land, Jon Davie, Dave Ober­le, Graeme Tay­lor, Gra­ham Pres­kett, Richard Harvey

August 3, 2015   No Comments

An Electric Car (at least part of the time…)

There is a time when old­er vehi­cles start to become rather expen­sive to keep run­ning, and with both our main vehi­cle, a 2001 Free­lander, and our sec­ond car, a 2001 Focus that was a gift from friends, hav­ing had expen­sive or poten­tial­ly expen­sive prob­lems recent­ly (and the Free­lander has very near­ly done the equiv­a­lent of going to the Moon), we thought it was time to con­sid­er some­thing rather newer.

As we are try­ing to become rather green­er in our lifestyles, an elec­tric vehi­cle would be the ide­al. But frankly, as it stands today, we can’t get the range from a ‘pure’ elec­tric vehi­cle to do the sort of things we need to do (which includes a 200-mile round-trip once a week in my case, and more occa­sion­al long-dis­tance trips, for exam­ple to Scot­land). So the obvi­ous thing to do was to look at hybrids. There is no way I could con­sid­er buy­ing one new (and in fact I haven’t bought a new car since the 1970s, when some­one wrote it off for me a few weeks after I bought it. I have this fun­ny idea about not adding any new cars to the road…).

But what kind of hybrid? The obvi­ous was one of the Toy­ota mod­els. They’re built in the UK as far as I know, and they have a rep­u­ta­tion for excel­lent build qual­i­ty. But again, even a sec­ond-hand Prius was rather more than I had in mind price­wise. The next one down was a used Auris hybrid, and a very nice-look­ing car it is. A friend who knows the car said it behaved very well and was actu­al­ly rather nippy.

How­ev­er, although the Auris deliv­ers good fuel effi­cien­cy – some­where in the 75 mpg range I believe – it, like its bed­fel­lows, is nev­er a strict­ly “elec­tric vehi­cle” – the wheels are dri­ven by a com­bi­na­tion of inter­nal com­bus­tion engine (ICE) and elec­tric motors. So you can nev­er turn the ICE off. But while we need­ed a car that could do longer jour­neys (I would like ulti­mate­ly to get us down to one car if at all pos­si­ble), a lot of our dri­ving is around Cam­bridgeshire and envi­rons. That meant that anoth­er type of hybrid was actu­al­ly more suit­ed to our require­ments: a PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Elec­tric Vehicle).

In a PHEV, the wheels are always dri­ven by elec­tric motors. This is a Good Thing as the dri­ve train is much sim­pler (and thus, one hopes, more reli­able) and much more effi­cient than all that engine-and-gear­box stuff. And you just put your foot down and go. The vehi­cle is pow­ered by bat­ter­ies, and you recharge them by plug­ging it in. But, and it’s an impor­tant and pos­i­tive ‘but’, when the bat­ter­ies are exhaust­ed, an on-board ICE kicks in, dri­ving a gen­er­a­tor to con­tin­ue pow­er­ing the dri­ve for as long as there is fuel avail­able, essen­tial­ly turn­ing it into the equiv­a­lent of a diesel-elec­tric loco­mo­tive – a ‘series-hybrid’ if you like (though by some def­i­n­i­tions, a ‘hybrid’ has to have both sys­tems able to dri­ve the wheels). And because the ICE is only run­ning a gen­er­a­tor, it can always run at the most effi­cient speed, which saves an enor­mous amount of fuel to begin with. Over­all, you get the ben­e­fits of an elec­tric vehi­cle – no fos­sil fuels are used as long as you don’t exceed the elec­tric-only range; and it’s qui­et, pow­er­ful and extreme­ly eff­i­cent – with­out the range anx­i­ety. And when you are dri­ving on the ICE, you get superb fuel efficiency.

There are not very many of these kinds of vehi­cles around in the UK. Dis­count­ing the new Mit­subishi Out­lander PHEV ver­sion and the BMW i3, both of which are well out­side our price range, you’re left with two: the Chevro­let Volt and the Vaux­hall Ampera. Chevro­let and Vaux­hall are, of course, both Gen­er­al Motors, and these are basi­cal­ly the same vehi­cle, the Volt being the orig­i­nal, released in MY 2011. The Ampera is the Euro­peanised ver­sion of the Volt. GM don’t use the term ‘hybrid’ for the vehi­cle: they pre­fer E‑REV, or ‘Extend­ed Range Elec­tric Vehicle’.

Chevy is being wound down in the UK. And while Volts have been very suc­cess­ful in the US (and remain so – a new ver­sion comes out next year), nei­ther vari­ant did tremen­dous­ly well in Europe, despite the Ampera win­ning a bunch of awards includ­ing Car of the Year in 2012, the year it came out here: there are about 6,000 on the road. It seems like­ly that this is because they were rather expen­sive when new – up in the fair­ly-large-BMW brack­et while being a mid-sized rea­son­ably lux­u­ri­ous hatch­back. So I was expect­ing this to be out of range too… but not so! Although they have held their val­ue pret­ty well, I was able to find a cou­ple of 2012 Amperas – one not too far away – that we could actu­al­ly afford. And fol­low­ing a test dri­ve, we went for it. Pre­vi­ous­ly owned by the deal­er­ship own­er’s wife, it has been very well looked after; and it’s a very cool-look­ing Sum­mit White.

I stud­ied the forums and oth­er infor­ma­tion sources thor­ough­ly before pur­chase, and as far as I could dis­cov­er, it is one of the most reli­able vehi­cles GM has ever pro­duced: a known small risk of bat­tery fire was fixed before the vehi­cles were even made for Europe; and while there is a known issue with a rather impor­tant bear­ing, only about 1–2% of vehi­cles have it fail and the prob­lem and its solu­tion are well-doc­u­ment­ed. Accord­ing to a clean­tech-ori­ent­ed friend in the US, the Volt own­ers she knows are very pleased with their purchase.

amperaThe vehi­cle is extreme­ly pleas­ant to dri­ve, smooth and qui­et, and even when the petrol engine final­ly kicks in, it’s still smooth and qui­et and the per­for­mance (which includes its rather impres­sive accel­er­a­tion) vir­tu­al­ly unim­paired. The lit­er­a­ture quotes the pure-elec­tric range as “25–50 miles” – and that’s exact­ly what you get, depend­ing on dri­ving style and whether you have the heat­ing on or not. On my first dri­ve I got 48.8 miles out of the bat­tery. The next day, leav­ing ear­ly on a cold morn­ing, it went down to a mere 36 (tip: ‘pre-con­di­tion’ the dri­ving com­part­ment before leav­ing, while it’s still plugged in, which you can set it to do automatically).

The vehi­cle keeps a record of life­time fuel effi­cien­cy. When I bought it, it was 110mpg (with 35,000 miles on the clock). I now have it up to 111. And indeed, as I expect­ed, trips around Cam­bridgeshire can be made entire­ly on bat­tery pow­er – and if I can charge the car while the solar pan­els are out­putting sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than we’re using, that oper­a­tion is essen­tial­ly free. Even on my week­ly 200-mile round trip I man­aged over 90 mpg, thanks to being able to charge the car at my des­ti­na­tion (where the Direc­tor of Mar­ket­ing has a Tes­la and is hap­py to share his charg­er) as well as at home. This knocks spots off a con­ven­tion­al Hybrid Syn­er­gy sys­tem. The car is learn­ing what mileage I get from the bat­ter­ies. When I first charged it, it esti­mat­ed my bat­tery range as 26 miles. It now thinks I’ll get 46. And that’s pret­ty much what I get.

chargerIt made sense to have a car charg­er fit­ted to the wall next to the dri­ve­way, rather than stick a cable out of the win­dow, and there is a Gov­ern­ment OLEV sub­sidy scheme that pays for a good chunk of the instal­la­tion of a charg­er. I got mine (left) from Charge­Mas­ter PLC in Luton, who were great to deal with – and hav­ing pro­posed a date, they actu­al­ly came a cou­ple of weeks ear­ly thanks to a can­cel­la­tion. Charg­ing the car from flat using the sup­plied EVSE (Elec­tric Vehi­cle Sup­ply Equip­ment), which plugs into a stan­dard domes­tic sock­et, takes about 6 hours at around 11A charg­ing cur­rent. How­ev­er if you have a charg­er installed, you can charge in about 4 hours at 16A.

220px-SAE_J1772_7058855567The Volt/Ampera has what is called a Type 1 (or J1772) con­nec­tor (right), a fair­ly com­pact latch­ing plug that goes into the left front of the vehi­cle. 220px-VDE-AR-E_2623-2-2-plugHow­ev­er most of the charg­ers you find in the wild in Europe are equipped with what are called Type 2, or Men­nekes con­nec­tors (left). It made sense, there­fore, to get a cable from one to the oth­er so I can charge the vehi­cle at a pub­lic charg­ing point at the des­ti­na­tion (there is rather less point charg­ing ‘on the road’ as the charg­ing rate is only about 16 miles an hour, and that’s what the ICE is for!). Hav­ing this cable in the back of the car, it made sense to have a Type 2 sock­et on the home charg­er instead of the more usu­al teth­ered Type 1; and while I was at it, I future-proofed myself by get­ting a 30A charg­er in case friends with a Tes­la call round or we upgrade down the line.

I would note when it comes to pub­lic charg­ing sites, although there are quite a lot of them (more all the time, and many will take a Type 2 plug), they all belong to dif­fer­ent net­works that gen­er­al­ly don’t have exchange agree­ments. As a result you may find you need a pack of RFID cards from the com­mon net­works and wave the right one over the charg­er to unlock it. In fact 85% of charg­ing is car­ried out at home, and as I note, I won’t nor­mal­ly be plug­ging-in at motor­way ser­vices, but I still want to be able to use a pub­lic charg­er at the end of a long jour­ney, so hav­ing those cards (sev­er­al of which are free) is prob­a­bly worth doing.

(Main pho­to: Gen­er­al Motors/Vauxhall)

April 26, 2015   No Comments

Solar panels — a year on

We want­ed to install solar pan­els for years — in my case decades, since I was involved in the “Alter­na­tive Tech­nol­o­gy” mag­a­zine Under­cur­rents in the 1970s. In the past, the idea of a solar PV sys­tem has just been too expen­sive (friends down the street paid £15,000 for their sys­tem just a few years ago), but we’d been watch­ing prices fall until, by the mid­dle of 2014, it looked as if prices had fall­en to an afford­able level.

We inter­viewed four com­pa­nies and it quick­ly became evi­dent that the height of the roof would­n’t allow the con­ven­tion­al 16 pan­els in two rows “por­trait” style that is com­mon for a 4kWp sys­tem – they would have to be mount­ed too close to the top and bot­tom of the roof (you need 500mm clear­ance all round — oth­er­wise you can risk less sta­bil­i­ty in high winds). We could, how­ev­er, man­age two rows of six, “land­scape” style. The com­pa­nies we talked to var­ied in the amount of work they did spec­i­fy­ing the instal­la­tion, and I regard actu­al­ly get­ting up into the loft and tak­ing real mea­sure­ments as an indi­ca­tor that the installer is worth considering.

The lim­i­ta­tion of 12 pan­els imme­di­ate­ly made the choice a rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple one. We need­ed high effi­cien­cy pan­els, and the Sun­Pow­er design, it was easy to see from the data sheets, was not only supe­ri­or in engi­neer­ing terms (they are not only more effi­cient, but they have a stur­dy back­plane sys­tem with no bus­es run­ning down the front of the pan­els, mak­ing them less prone to dam­age; and if a cell does get dam­aged, it does­n’t take the whole row out or worse), it also enabled us to install a sys­tem that would deliv­er a lit­tle under 4kWp from just 12 pan­els. Per­fect! Two com­pa­nies out of the four had offered us Sun­Pow­er pan­els. One was an enor­mous sup­pli­er in the Mid­lands that in fact I would rec­om­mend for any­one look­ing for a com­mer­cial instal­la­tion, but they were rather expen­sive — sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than any of the others.

inverterWe select­ed our sup­pli­er, Solar­works of Laven­ham in Suf­folk, who have been installing renew­able sys­tems since 1983. Just a cou­ple of weeks lat­er the scaf­fold­ing arrived and while it was set up, Solar­works fit­ted the invert­er – an ABB “Uno” sin­gle-phase mod­el – and asso­ci­at­ed switchgear in the clos­et under the stairs (see pic­ture left — note the black rotary switch bot­tom right, which is a prop­er DC iso­la­tor on the input path from the pan­els — which were still to be hooked up when this pic­ture was tak­en). Above the AC iso­la­tor on the left is the Gen­er­a­tion Meter. The next day, they installed the mount­ing rails on the roof. Because our pan­els were to be mount­ed hor­i­zon­tal­ly, the rails were ver­ti­cal and each of the 12 was attached to a dif­fer­ent rafter, giv­ing excep­tion­al strength.

The fol­low­ing day, the pan­els went up, and as soon as they were con­nect­ed, by mid-late after­noon – in two strings of six each – the invert­er was indi­cat­ing that we were gen­er­at­ing 3.6kW of elec­tric­i­ty. And the sto­ry has con­tin­ued, with the sys­tem reg­u­lar­ly gen­er­at­ing more kWh than we use in an aver­age day. This year, we saw the out­put exceed 3.7kW as ear­ly as March! (Which sur­prised me in fact, as you would have thought there would be loss­es between the 3.9kWp nom­i­nal pan­els and the invert­er.) The instal­la­tion, just after com­ple­tion, is shown above.

We’re very pleased with the results and would rec­om­mend both Sun­Pow­er pan­els and Solar­works as an installer.

We sub­se­quent­ly had our old Fer­ran­ti rotat­ing-disc import meter replaced so that it would­n’t go back­wards. The lat­ter sounds like a cool thing but actu­al­ly isn’t, because you are already being paid for the elec­tric­i­ty you are export­ing and the elec­tric­i­ty sup­pli­er can claim it back ret­ro­spec­tive­ly; plus I want­ed a mod­ern meter with an LED indi­ca­tor on to which I could strap a counter for metering.

geo2The meter­ing sys­tem I installed came from Geo (Green Ener­gy Options) in Cam­bridge. It mea­sures the pow­er out­put from the pan­els (via the flash­ing light on the Gen­er­a­tion Meter), the amount import­ed from the Grid (via the flash­ing light on the new Import Meter), and the raw cur­rent flow in or out of the build­ing (from a clip around the main pow­er input cable), and cal­cu­lates a range of data from those raw inputs. Very nice. On the dis­play shown here, the blue curve rep­re­sents the out­put from the pan­els (quite good for an over­cast day, I think) and the orange is the amount of ener­gy we’re using – these val­ues are shown numer­i­cal­ly in the cen­tre left of the dis­play. The lit­tle blue arrows at the bot­tom show we are export­ing elec­tric­i­ty, and the lit­tle green wave­form above the wattage dis­plays indi­cates that we have enough “free” pow­er to run a major appli­ance such as a wash­ing machine or dish­wash­er, with­out effec­tive­ly pay­ing for it; and on the right is our elec­tric­i­ty usage so far today and how much our income from gen­er­a­tion and our spend have been. The sys­tem is con­nect­ed to the Inter­net so you can remote­ly mon­i­tor sys­tem per­for­mance via the Web.

Our elec­tric­i­ty sup­pli­er is Ecotric­i­ty, and set­ting up for their Microtric­i­ty scheme to receive the Feed-in Tar­iff (FiT) was sim­ple to do. Now they are often bank­ing with me, and have had to revise my elec­tric­i­ty pay­ments down sig­nif­i­cant­ly as a result.

Hav­ing had the pan­els installed for almost a year, it looks as if we are run­ning some­what ahead of sched­ule as far as these pan­els pay­ing for them­selves is concerned.

April 25, 2015   No Comments

Compliments of the season!

December 18, 2014   No Comments