Hymie’s visits Orfield Labs

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(“Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan)

A small group of Hymie’s customers will be gathering this afternoon at Matthews Park to take a tour of Orfield Labs across the street – now why would people who love listening to music want to tour a building known for the “world’s quietest room”?

Because it’s sweet, first of all.  The walls in the room absorb so much sound that it’s -9 decibels.  You can actually hear your body functioning – your stomach churning, your heart beating, you can even hear the sound your ears make.  The world record for being in the world’s quietest room?  Forty-five minutes.  Even the man who created it, Steve Orfield, can’t stand to be in there ore than a half hour.  Somebody as anxious as me probably wouldn’t last two minutes.

So there’s that, but I’m not going in that room for the same reason I’m not going on the pirate ship that spins upside down.  The other reason we’re all excited to tour Orfield Labs is that it’s also the same building that was home to Sound 80 studios years ago, making it a subject of fascination to Minnesota music enthusiasts.

The studio was the site of several seminal sessions in the seventies, notably the 1975 last minute re-recording of four tracks on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks that featured an awesome lineup of Minneapolis musicians.  Prince recorded demos at Sound 80 in 1977 that caught the attention of record labels and led to his contract with Warner Bros. and the recording of his debut, For You.  Cat Stevens second-to-last Cat album, Izitso, was partially recorded there too, but I have not been able to confirm that the surprise dancefloor classic “Was Dog A Donut” – recently featured here – was one of the tracks laid down at Sound 80.

The year after Prince and Cat Stevens recorded at Sound 80, a Minneapolis trio cut their first album and created a local classic.  The Suicide Commandos Make a Record is a solid foundation for the Twin Cities’ punk rock scene, and still a favorite after so many listens my copy is a worn out disgrace.

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(“Real Cool” by the Suicide Commandos)

One last favorite Sound 80 recording, this one is special because it’s even on the Sound 80 label (and recorded in 1980!):  This track is from Willie and the Bees underrated second album, Out of the Woods (check out their fabulously fun first album here).  Hymie’s had an Ax-Man Surplus buy of dozens of copies of this album that has finally dwindled down to a handful and we sold a lot of them on the cheap.  Hopefully a few found their ways into the hands of listeners who’ll appreciate solid soulful rock.  I love this album and I love playing it when I DJ.  Here’s the first track:

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(“Love Buzz” by Willie and the Bees)

Dylan, Prince, Willie Murphy – what a roster to crow about!  Those three were named the first charter members of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, by the way, and together represent the range and vitality of our music scene, which continues to be one of the most original and exciting  in the nation (in spite of what some Prairie Home Companion lady had to say in the Star Tribune last week).

But it wasn’t folk, rock or R&B that filled the foundation of Sound 80′s reputation in the seventies, it was a series of classical albums which were the first commercially-released digital recordings.  The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s recording of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is often cited as the first – Dennis Russell Davies conducts the SPCO in a sensitive interpretation worthy of its good reputation (and 1980 Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance).  Their recording of Dave Brubeck’s La Fiesta de la Posada (also at Sound 80) is a disappointment, although still a record I was eager to hear once because it’s one of the first digital direct-to-disc recordings.*

What the fuck is this?  No magnetic tape or mixing.  The master is the first generation recording – the performers play and the lacquer master (the thing your record is stamped from) is cut at the same time.  Is it any better?  More often than not I can’t tell – most direct-to-disc records were made in minimal quantities (to assure quality) and marketed at twice the price or a regular record in the 1970s and 80s when they were most popular.  They attracted a weird variety of artists and produced only a few really memorable records (mostly classical and jazz).

They’re also really fun records to play, especially in a place like the record shop where you can play them LOUD!

Davies’ tenure at the SPCO is best known because it was the era of early digital recording, but it was also a good period for the Orchestra.  One gem we had in the shop was this recording of Schubert’s 5th symphony, which was also on the Sound 80 label.

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(Second movement, Andante con moto, from Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 5 in D Major)

I am surprised I’ve never posted a recording of Aaron Copland’s original 13-piece arrangement of the ballet suite Appalachian Spring.  I most often listen to the 1974 revival or the piece, conducted by the composer himself with the Columbia Studio Orchestra, but the first I ever heard was the SPCO’s and it sort of framed my expectations for the piece because I listened to it so many times.

So Orfield Labs is not Sound 80 studios although they have been providing design, research and testing services and solutions for corporate and architectural clients since 1971 (they started in a different building).  They’re probably used to questions about Blood on the Tracks but “If You See Her, Say Hello” isn’t really what they do anymore.  They have built a world-renowned laboratory that’s a subject of neighborhood pride.  I like pointing it out to friends when we happen to be driving by, and before I mention the Sound 80 history I tell them about the world’s quietest room.

The Hymie’s tour of Orfield Labs is this afternoon at 3:30.  We are meeting at Matthews Park across the street.  The cost is $20 per person (they give it to a local food shelf) and Hymie’s is covering half of that for any interested customers, so you have to bring $10 (and your crazy pants if you think you’re going to last two minutes in the world’s quietest room).  Please call the record shop to make sure we still have room for one more if you plan on showing up.

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