It isn’t often that I get an opportunity to meet to one of my musical heroes, but that’s exactly what happened last week when I received an email from the world-class bass guitarist Dean Peer, inviting me to audition his soon to be released new album, called Airborne, in a private listening session to be held at Ne Plus Ultra—a wonderful high-end audio salon located in Austin, TX (www.neplusultrainc.com). Peer, for those of you not yet acquainted with his work, is a remarkable solo artist on his chosen instrument, with a dazzling array of playing techniques at his disposal. seemingly limitless chops, and—most importantly—a wealth of inventive musical ideas to express (www.deanpeer.com). Interestingly, Peer is an absolute master at using bass harmonics (a subject on which Peer has written extensively), and through his harmonic techniques Peer effectively extends range of his bass guitar while giving the instrument an otherworldly and unexpectedly high-pitched, chime-like voice that I, for one, find mesmerizing. Two of Peer’s earlier records, UCROSS and Travelogue, have recently been re-issued as high-resolution gold CDs by XLO Recordings and XLO, in turn, has graciously given samples of these discs (two of my personal favorites) to members of The Absolute Sound Golden Ear Club.
On the appointed day, Nextscreen CEO and frequent Playback contributor Tom Martin and I made our way to Ne Plus Ultra, which is located in a lovely old Victorian mansion near downtown Austin. We were greeted at the door by Ne Plus Ultra proprietor Casey McKee and shown to seats in the store’s main listening room. The listening session had already started, so we were very quiet and took the opportunity to simply focus on and drink in the music. And what wonderful music it was. As we listened to the 9 tracks of Airborne, most of which feature Peer accompanied by a percussionist he has known for many years, I couldn’t help but think that Peer’s musical vision has expanded dramatically over time (which is saying a mouthful, given how versatile and inventive his compositions have always been). There is an adventurous quality to this new album that, I suspect, may make it one of those landmark albums that will be talked about for years to come. There are also elements of legitimate surprise and delight, as many of these recorded duets create the illusion that they have been performed by more than two musicians. In fact, in a conversation after the listening session, Peer mentioned that he’s often asked questions such as this: “Who played the guitar solo on Track 4?” To this and other questions of it ilk, Peer’s humble response is more often than not to say, “Oh, that was just me on the bass—it’s all in the hands, really…”
Popular urban myth suggests that top-tier musicians rarely care as deeply about sound quality as audiophiles do, but Peer is very much the exception to this rule. Instead, he has the keen, discerning ears of a hardcore audiophile, meaning that whenever he records he sweats the smallest of details involving musical timbres, dynamic envelopes, and the overall spatial presentation. For instance, in a post-listening session talk, Peer mentioned that he has rewired many of his electronics effects boxes with Cardas cable for greater clarity, that he chooses instrument signal cables with care (only the best will do) and that—to the consternation of some of his fellow musicians—he pays strict attention to the directional orientation of those cables (because signal flow sounds better in one direction than the other). He also places a tremendous premium on achieving quiet backgrounds and low levels of noise. In fact, Peer mentioned that, to achieve the particular sounds he wanted for one of the tracks on Airborne, he needed to use a one-of-a-kind effects box whose noise floor was not as low as he would have liked. Tellingly, Peer commented that—since he could find no way to remove the noise without also removing musically significant textural details—he instead had to content himself with finding “ways to use the noise envelope of the effects box in a musical way, so that the noise became part of the overall composition.” Given this level of attention to detail, it comes as no surprise that Peer’s records sound terrific when reproduced on high-quality audio systems.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the superb audio system Casey McKee put together for the listening session, which consisted of the dCS Paganini digital playback ensemble feeding a Nagra preamp and power amp pair, with the Nagra pair driving a both visually and sonically gorgeous set of Wilson MAXX Series3 loudspeakers. The sound was exceedingly transparent and revealing, yet never cold or analytical, and capable of thunderous dynamics (as low frequency bass guitar slaps can sometimes require). In short, this was a true top-tier audio system that, in my view, did full justice to the explosive dynamics, delicate inner details, and eerie spatial effects that Peer had labored so assiduously to create.