2022 January 27

     We lost Melvin A. Schilling, on 2022 January 24. He was born 1933 April 23 and had nearly nine decades of satisfying, productive life. This morning, 2022 January 27, I just got the news of his passing from his son, Howard. I was privileged to be his customer and friend for forty-four of his eighty-eight years. (We shared a few Philadelphia Orchestra concerts too.)

     Mel loved the piano both playing and listening. On his last birthday I mentioned he had eighty-eight years to match eighty-eight keys on his piano. He was perky and joyful when we last talked on 2021 September 10, Friday, and we exchanged emails up until 2022 January 6, three weeks ago. Maybe if he had a Bösendorfer with four extra keys he would have made it to ninety-two.

     I owe Mel a real eulogy web page, but this will have to do. I put a bunch of stories at the bottom of this page.

     Melvin A. Schilling was "Music And Sound," MAS, and the Music always came first before the Sound. Mel was a pioneer in the world of hifi audio, what we call "high end" audio, where the commitment to the reproduction of music and its subtleties is paramount. He created a world of listening to recorded music with a keener ear and what he didn't create himself was created by people he helped and people who knew him and respected him.

     I think of Mel every morning with joy. I don't have a choice, really. I bought my Linn turntable and my two ReVox tape decks in his Woodland-Hills store. He "sold" me his old Quad ESL electrostatic loudspeakers for a pittance (with the Decca ribbons on top), they were really a gift from "Uncle Mel," and I listen to them every day. It's hard not to admire somebody who gave me such a clear window into concert halls and recording studios decades ago, the finest musicians on tape, vinyl, and compact disk (CD).

     For now I'll leave family and friends with a message I gleaned from Theodor Geisel, one of last century's most wonderful authors. "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." Mel Schilling, you gave me forty-four years to smile about, forever and always.




Audio Pioneer Mel Schilling: In Memoriam



     When it comes to Mel Schilling's life, I feel like I walked in at the beginning of Act II and I had to gather what happened in Act I from the story and a few hushed whispers around me.

     Before I go too far into the specifics of my relationship with "Uncle Mel," let me take a few sentences to explain why he is a hero in my book. Music is one of the great things humanity has done. Unlike literature which can be stored on the shelf for posterity (assuming Julius Caesar doesn't come along and burn nearly the entire library of human knowledge at Alexandria), music is an event, performed at a place and time, performers playing and an audience listening. It's an interaction between player and listener. (Funny recent story, this is my collection of stories and I'm allowed to ramble, 2021 November 19, Rene Marie and her Quintet were performing at Scottsdale, I was in the middle of the front row as usual, and she asked what I was holding in my lap. I told her it was my cookie, I offered her half of it, she said yes, and I walked up and handed her half a cookie. It really is an exchange.) That exchange happens at one place and one time and anybody who doesn't happen to be there and then misses the musical experience. Pioneers like Guglielmo Marconi and Thomas Edison changed that, one creating radio so sound could appear someplace far away from its source and the other creating recordings that allowed listeners to hear a performance years and decades later and far away.

     Once we get past the novelty factor of hearing recorded music, there is a desire to make it better, bringing in more of the wonder and magic in the original event. That desire was turned into to a quest by a community of "high-end audiophiles" seeking perfection in hifi reproduction.

     Mel was a champion in that quest. It's not so much that he designed or built high-end audio equipment, he did and he did, but that he brought to light in our high-end community people and companies that made wonderful equipment that served admirably in this quest. These were speakers, amplifiers, preamplifiers, turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, CD players, et cetera that enrich our music experience playing these wonderful recordings.

     I wish I new more of the details. As I understand the history, Melvin A. Schilling was Music And Sound (MAS, the Music came first, before the Sound) and he managed to expose small, worthwhile American companies like Decca, Mangapan, Audio Research, Infinity, Conrad-Johnson, Mark Levinson, and Great American Sound to our high-end community and to bring great products from overseas like Linn and Quad to American audiophiles. He partnered with John Iverson to create Electro Research. (Did I miss anybody?) We would not have the rich selection of incredible high-end audio gear and the discriminating community of listeners but for Uncle Mel and his vision.

     Mel didn't do this for free. This stuff is expensive, he made a good living, and he deserved every bit of it. He created a mystique around these superior products that make a community of audiophiles comfortable paying a lot of good money for this gear, so the companies making it could prosper and create more good stuff.

     My own theory is the oil-embargo gasoline shortage of 1973 moved peoples status-seeking focus from fast cars to good hifi and Mel rode that wave to create a world of terrific sounding gear that makes our home music reproduction ever so much richer and more wonderful and more faithful to the original performances so long ago and so far away. Thank you, Mel, for all of it.

     Now back to my own Story of Mel.

     There was a hifi store in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, at 11½ Old York Road close to where it intersects with Easton Road. In this part of the play "Mel's Life" the scene is still in the Philadelphia area while the main character Mel has headed far away, out west to California somewhere. The store is Music And Sound Limited and the Princeton student with orange hair walked in. (I had incredibly-bright orange hair in those days.) This would have been sometime around 1976 Summer, so let's fix that date to start my part of the story.

     The outer room was professional audio gear. I recall huge mixing boards and not much else about that room. The inner room was the cool place. There were gigantic speakers and expensive-looking hifi components along one wall. The most-noticeable was a pair of three-panel speakers set up in a zig-zag and a large amplifier with two big VU meters calibrated in decibels (dB). Along the far wall I remember a top shelf with five large Crown tape decks and there was an enormous box-shaped tower. An imposing gentleman Larry Segelin treated the orange-haired shabby college student with respect well beyond what he was likely to buy from this expensive store. He put on a record Supertramp "Crime of the Century" on the high-end demo system with the three-panel speakers and the sound was amazing. The clarity of the instruments was stunning, the bass was deep and firm, and every aspect of the recording was clearly represented in its place between the speakers.

     This was a very different experience than shopping at Tech Hifi, the usual college-student hangout. It was a different world and clearly an expensive world.

     They could have put me down or thrown me out of the store. (There's no Constitutional edict about discrimination on the basis of poverty.) Instead Larry asked me about my college hifi and he introduced me to high-end audio by selling me a pair of black-plastic piezoelectric tweeeters that could go atop my AR-4 bookshelf speakers for $15 and, Wow!, they sounded better. Fifteen bucks for high-end audio. It wasn't very high end, but fifteen bucks wasn't a lot of money. I had built a tonearm out of Lego blocks, Larry showed me a cool "articulated" tonearm called the Vestigal and I built my next tonearm out of Erector Set and paper clips. I bought a couple of phono cartridges to fasten to this new tonearm, as left-handed as I am so the user saw the back of the cartridge. Larry sold me a turntable called the Fons, no relation to the television show "Happy Days."

     Larry even gave me the plans for a subwoofer which my friend Andy built with me. Larry sold me the speaker-cone driver. It was a black monolith remniscent of the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," I kept it for a few years, a friend helped me build another one, and Andy still has the first one we built together. I designed my own crossover and, Pow!, I became an audiophile.

     There was talk of somebody named Mel Shilling who used to own the place, but he wasn't around anymore.

     When I was a graduate student at Stanford I found my way to Los Angeles and I stopped in at Mel's new store Music And Sound of California in Woodland Hills. The gentleman who waited on a pathetically-poor student sold me a Son of Ampzilla amplifier which was quite a bit better than the Dynakit Stereo 70. Then Mel introduced himself to me and gave me the real show in the back room, two three-panel Magneplanar Tympani speakers, an Electro Research A75 amplifer, and a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable. On a subsequent visit I recall Steely Dan "Aja" where the little bell on the title-track chorus that I could just make out on my stereo was so clear and wonderful and part of the song here. Mel was a gentleman to me from then to our last communication a few weeks ago. He handed me a copy of a record with seven names and seven pictures, Norman Blake, Tut Taylor Sam Bush, Butch Robins, Vassar Clements, David Holland, and Jethro Burns on Flying Fish records. I asked what it was, all Mel said is, "You'll like it." Yes, I liked it, yes, I still have it, I listened to it as I wrote this section, and, yes, I still like it.

     It was a longer story, little to do with Mel, how I acquired a little money and was able to get a nicer hifi. I was back home in Philadelphia in Clay Barclay's store, in 1980 I think, and there was a used Electro Research A75 for $1100. Mel was pissed at Clay for selling his old customer a set of Crowns to replace his revered A75, a bit of rivalry. He also warned me the amp was "pot luck," there were no guarantees of anything. It was a financial pinch but I had the money and I bought the amp, I put it in the back of my 1973 Volkswagon Superbeetle, and pulled it out on my first stop on the way back to Stanford, my friend's house in Pittsburgh.

     Sometime in the 1970s Mel teamed up with John Iverson, one of those tough, crew-cut military engineers. In John's case he was one of those tough, crew-cut, brilliant military engineers. They formed a company Electro Research. The story of the A75 is that it was supposed to have been an amplifier for moving a turret weapon of some sort and it was the best-sounding amplifier ever. (I heard a lot of amplifiers in my audio career and, as of 1982, only Rappaport AMP1 gave it a contest.) You can only imagine how excited I was to hear this amp at my friend's place. He had a pair of Fried B satellites (the top part of Fried's Model H without the subwoofer) and we hooked up the amp to the tape-output of his receiver, no volume control and nervous about that, and we put a record on. Whee! Holy shit! Wow! This ugly thing sounded amazing!

     Putting on one record after another we listened for an hour. Then the amp went silent, nothing, nada, zilch. We checked and the slow-blow seven-amp power fuse had blown. Well, my attitude is you replace a fuse once, try it again, and then give up. We found a slow-blow seven-amp power fuse at a store, turned the amp on, and it caught fire. Flames! My precious $1100 wonder-amp that had sounded so amazing was now fuel for its own fire. My "pot luck" amp had gone to pot. Oh shit.

     Well, I was going through Los Angeles anyway on my way back to Stanford, so I called Mel. (Remember Mel? This is a song about Mel.) Two days after our sorrowful, sad conversation, I dropped the amp off at Music and Sound of California and Mel said he would give the amp to John Iverson. Maybe he could fix it.

     A little while later John put the amp on the back of his Harley and drove it to his factory, then in Amarillo, where he worked his wonders. The first thing he fixed was the fan.

     Fan? I didn't know the amp had a fan. No, you didn't because it wasn't working. Normally you can hear the fan's faint 300 Hz hum, but this amp was totally silent in operation. Once it got too hot, then it just became totally silent. John brought the newly-repaired A75 back to Mel's store, I drove down to L.A. and picked it up.

     With trepidation I asked the terrible question, "How much?" Nothing, said John through Mel, it shouldn't have broken. As much as it hurt at the time, For the man's serious effort and cost I coughed up a token $500 which he accepted (again through Mel, I only met John a couple years later) and I took the amp home to my apartment in Mountain View, California, where my audio-weenie friends and I spent many hours enjoying its incredible resolution of content, texture, timbre, image, and all that audio stuff. We also enjoyed how much more music there was in the music. Whee! Holy shit! Wow! This time there was no fire.

     Mel didn't have to do any of this. At that time he really didn't know me from, well, you know, Adam. That's what kind of person and businessman Mel was then, before, and since.

     Well, I invested about $2500 (with a lot of do-it-yourself patent prose) in a patent on my articulated tonearm inspired by the Vestigal tonearm Larry had shown me. Now I wanted to turn it into a business, so I asked Mel for counsel and advice when I was in L.A.

     Mel comes back, "I'm busy at the store, why don't you come by my house later." I don't think I would have felt more honored if the Pope invited me to his private quarters or the Queen invited me to her chambers at Buckingham Palace. This was Mel Schilling's house. My next thought was what kind of music system would have Place of Pride in Mel's living room. I could only imagine what sort of equipment I would see there.

     I should not have been surprised at what the pioneer of high-end audio would have in his living room. Not a single piece of audio gear, just a full-sized, nine-foot Steinway grand piano. Mel talked to me about my prospects as a high-end manufacturer, not too good actually. (In the back room, by the way, on sagging-cardboard-tubes shelves, was the best hifi I had ever heard.)

     First, Mel gave me a tongue lashing about doing a second run of LOCI tonearms when the first hadn't produced sales results. "You've got all these dealers who have tonearms and haven't paid and you're paying for a second set." He said no "audiophile" has ever made money in hifi, one has to be a businessman. With the compact disk coming onto the market turntable and tonearm sales are doing down and, just to rub salt in the wound, Linn was coming out with their Ittok tonearm and their dealers would be under tremendous pressure to sell that tonearm instead of mine.

     When I got my Linn Sondek LP12 turntable I wanted to learn to set it up myself. I spent hours and hours trying to adjust the three springs, height and rotation, and I couldn't get the turntable to bobble evenly in all directions of motion. I brought the turntable into the store and begged for help.

     Mel had the turntable all balanced in less than five minutes. There was a trick for the Linn: Adjust the springs so the floating armboard is exactly the same height as the wooden plinth frame and centered exactly in the larger, rectangular place for it. He rubbed his finger across the corners to feel how level it was. Once it passed his look and touch test, the 'table was perfect, even movement in all directions. He tested it by pushing the spindle down and releasing it to see if the turntable bobbled vertically with no side motion. Mel was similarly facile setting up Magneplanar speakers in a listening room, a minute or two. It took me hours to set those speakers up when I tried it.

     Here's the thing I liked about Mel's understanding of audio. He wasn't himself an engineer. Instead he surrounded himself with smart people. He knew a bunch of shortcuts and he understood that they were specific shortcuts. I remember at one hifi show some fellow walked up to the C.J.Walker turntable and did the same bobble test, it didn't bobble straight, and he made disparaging remarks about the suspension. He was wrong, that test was a great shortcut test for the Linn, not a general test for all floating-suspension turntables.

     When all the digital-to-analogue systems seemed to be terribly sensitive to power supplies, his new company Camelot came out with a product that used a battery so there would be no line-voltage variations. It was called the Arthur with a switch for "performance" on the batteries and "rehearsal" for running on the A/C-line wall electricity while the batteries were charging.

     For me high-end hifi was about revelations about how well machinery could reproduce music and, as a seriously-wonderful side effect, about music itself. After Mel found me an Electro Research EK1 (from a dealer in Wisconsin, I think, who had one and didn't want to sell it to an actual "customer" as it was no longer a supported product), I figured there weren't too many hifi revelations left. One time when I visited his house in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, he played me the Weathers turntable from 1960. Its FM technology couldn't do stereophonic reproduction, a necessity for a high-end hifi product, so that product went away. On the Opus 3 hifi-demonstration record the Swedish woman's voice was so much more real than my EK1. I wasn't expecting another holy-shit-it's-better moment. If I had to give up stereo forever-and-always to have that sound, I probably would say "no" because stereo image is such an important part of my musical experience, but it would be nice to have both my current set and the Weathers.

     More recently Mel got me products from his Camelot company, an amazing compact disk player called the Round Table, and a digital-to-analogue computer-USB stick called the Magic. My friend Jeff Polan, a real engineer in many ways including audio, gave me some wall-line-electricity filters that I soldered into plugs from the hardware store, but I wanted to find somebody who make these filters into a real product. (I get nervous playing around with wall-line voltage that gives more a tingle.) Mel sent me Camelot Flux Conditioners that are wonderful and, yes, they sound better than my hobby-soldered filters.

     There are stories to tell of dinners at hifi shows with a table full of his audio business associates where I was allowed, literally, a seat at the table, thank you Mel, meeting some truly interesting people in hifi audio, thank you again Mel, and just being part of a scene for more than four decades, thank you yet again Mel. Sometimes I feel I'm not an owner of the wonderful machines I got from Mel Schilling, but only a caretaker for some future audiophile.

     Our last emails were about his concert programs going back to 1949 and how he was enjoying Spotify on 2022 January 6. In my next email, inspired by a "cold" email I got from an audiophile somewhere far away asking about John Iverson's "massless, force-field" loudspeakers, I was going to ask if Mel had ever heard them.

     I don't know what I did right to deserve special friends like Mel. Maybe I just got incredibly lucky. I'm thankful to whatever twist of fate that connected me and him.



Today is 2024 February 29, Thursday,
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