Windham Hill Records: the forgotten audiophile label

By Todd Whitesel

Regardless if you consider yourself an audiophile, you likely recognize and associate record labels such as DCC, Mobile Fidelity, Nautilus and Sheffield with the audiophile community. Collectors seeking the ultimate-sounding copy of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” or Supertramp’s “Crime Of The Century” have ensured that prices for such pressings remain robust.

When I went off to college in the mid-1980s, one of the things I missed most being away from home was my record collection. After watching Animal House one too many times, I decided the LPs were safer there than in the unpredictable dorms where undergrads — myself included — ran wild.

During holiday breaks, I’d bolt home for a few days. Inevitably, one of the first things I did was return to my beloved records for an evening of care-free spinning. I was heavily into guitar at the time and had recently discovered Windham Hill artist Michael Hedges. To say that Hedges turned the guitar world on its head would be an understatement; more like he severed it from the neck, guillotine-style.

But as amazing as his technique, equally brilliant was the sound of his record. When Hedges picked or played arpeggios, the strings resonated with such life that it sounded like the guitar was in the room; harmonics would ring bell-like or with gauzy impressionism; and when he slapped or tapped his instrument, the echo from wood decayed. This was long before I even heard the term “audiophile,” but I knew that what I was hearing was special — like having a window into the original recording session.

Will Ackerman founded Windham Hill as a guitar-playing carpenter, with no reason to believe that his roster of eclectic — and wildly talented — musicians would achieve widespread popularity, even as his label’s music helped to define what would be called “New Age” music. That sobriquet was and is still undeserved. Anyone who has seen the likes of Hedges, de Grassi or Winston perform knows there’s more to their craft than composing Muzak for hot tubs and meditations.

Winston became best-known for his seasonal soundscapes, but he can play a bawdy barrelhouse piano and a mean slack-key guitar. Hedges brought an avant-garde sensibility to the guitar, using it as much for percussion and strange effects as for picking, and de Grassi spun idioms from blues, folk and jazz into intricate and colorful webs. Ackerman’s music, too, is special. Though he’s not a virtuoso in the traditional sense, his mastery of open tunings and creating moods from revolving and evolving chord patterns is unmatched. Ackerman’s musical ear also recognized the genius of players mentioned above along with many others. He was a visionary and often lost among the more celebrated labels and founders.

Windham Hill was never about image or cashing in on the latest craze. It was about music and sound. From the beginning, steps were taken to ensure its recorded artists sounded their best, taking meticulous steps and using processes, such as half-speed mastering, employed by Mobile Fidelity and their kin. Unlike other “regular” labels, too, Windham Hill often “explained” the recording process in fine detail. The back cover of Hedges’ “Breakfast In The Field” LP relates, “This album was recorded without overdubs or multi-tracking on a MCI JH 110 A analogue two-track tape recorder at 30 inches per second through a Neve 8036 console with minimal equalization. No noise reduction was employed. The guitar was close-miked in stereo with a matched pair of AKG 452 EB condenser microphones in a cardioid pattern.”

A cardioid is a heart-patterned shape that sound engineers use in multi-mike situations, where sensitivity to the front of the microphone — such as solo acoustic guitar — is high, and sound from the rear is mostly rejected. As well, employing this pattern also eliminates most of the natural ambience of a room. The result is a purer recording of the instrument and music, and less of the surroundings.

Whether listeners cared that Windham Hill recorded live without overdubs or noise reduction wasn’t the point; that Windham Hill cared was. And that care, I believe, was partly responsible for the label’s success. Customers were not just hearing beautiful music, but beautiful music recorded beautifully — organically and representative of the landscapes and other outdoor imagery that often decorated record covers.

If, for some reason, a customer purchased a defective record, Windham Hill wanted to know. The label also recognized that the majority of consumers probably don’t have their turntables set for optimum playback, suggesting, “…please check to see if your phonograph stylus is clean and not heavily worn. In addition, verify that your cartridge is properly aligned and mounted, and that your tonearm is set for the correct tracking force and anti-skate requirements.”

This was truly a label ahead of its time and those pressings from 20 and 30 years ago — and more — still hold up to scrutiny with the best popular recordings of the time. What’s more is that Windham Hill records can be found nearly anywhere.

You can still find Near Mint condition — even sealed — Windham Hill LPs at bargain prices, especially compared to the more trumpeted audiophile-specific labels. If you haven’t listened lately, give this forgotten label another spin. Innovative music and audiophile sound. Thanks, Windham Hill.

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One thought on “Windham Hill Records: the forgotten audiophile label

  1. Todd, thank you for this awesome article. You are absolutely right about the outstanding sound quality of almost every single release, as well as the artistry which stands the test of time.

    I’ve recently started a blog dedicated to the Windham Hill Discography – particularly the first 106 albums. I provide complete liner notes, credits and track listings for each album in the order they were released. I’ve even had the good fortune of interviewing Harn Soper who recorded many of the early Windham Hill albums, and had a big part in crafting the sound – the close-miking techniques, for example.

    The Music Annex and Different Fur Studios still exist today. Also, Stan Ricker and RTI, who did the mastering and pressings for Windham Hill and Mobile Fidelity are still creating masterpieces.

    Regarding valuations, I tend to think that there are a couple of things to look for in addition to the obvious quality benchmarks:
    1) The WHS-C numbered discs are rarer than the later WH- pressings, and so more valuable.
    2) Promo copies are rarer, and often have been played less, and should be more valuable than a non-promo.
    3) Early and alternate covers were used for some printings, particularly “In Search of the Turtle’s Navel,” some of which were only run in 300 pressings.

    Thanks again.

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