The Mad Scientist of Sound

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Your car creeps along the rutted quarter-mile driveway, headlight beams bouncing in the dark through a tunnel of trees and bramble. Awaiting you at the end of the line is a 64-year-old genius named Pierre Sprey -- a guy whose airplanes win wars, whose music recordings delight audiophiles, and whose name still makes some three-star generals splutter with rage.

After parking your car in the weeds, you grope toward the unlit entrance of a century-old mansion, four white columns across the front porch, plantation-style. This is Sprey's home, his office, his think tank, his recording studio. But, to put it mildly, the place is a shambles.

A glance through the front screen reveals peeling paint, cracked plaster, a slab of plywood hanging at a crazy angle from the ceiling. A piano sits in the middle of the living room. Tables and chairs are piled with a riotous clutter of wires, books, boxes, batteries, papers and CDs. There are stereo speakers as tall as Shaquille O'Neal. Ribbons of copper dangle from a hat rack like drying pasta.

You are hardly the first visitor to be taken aback.

"It looked like a mad scientist's laboratory," recalls congressional staffer Jaron Burke.

"My first impression was, how can anyone live here?" says writer Robert Coram.

"I was not anywhere near prepared for what we walked into," says mandolin player Tony Williamson. "The guys in my band looked at me like, what have you gotten us into?"

"Hey," says Pentagon reformer Chuck Spinney, a longtime buddy of Sprey's, "it's luxurious compared to the house he used to live in."

The squalor, though, doesn't matter, they say, and within a few minutes you're inclined to agree. Sprey may well be the most fascinating person you've never heard of. Influential, too, though not in the usual Washington way of lobbyists or politicians. His is the power of the artist or inventor in search of the cutting edge, of the thinker who will pursue a good idea to the edge of reason even as the crowd with all the money and titles herds to the same old places.

Doubters of the impact of Sprey's thinking can ask the Iraqi tank commanders whose divisions were decimated by his aeronautic offspring, the A-10 Warthog. Probably the single most effective weapon in the Persian Gulf War, it was built in spite of an Air Force brass that bemoaned it as too ugly, too simple and, yes, too cheap.

Or ask some reviewers for CD Review or other music magazines, a community that regularly raves about the quality of Sprey-engineered CDs. The recordings released by his homegrown Mapleshade Studio make it sound as if a band has assembled for a jam session in your living room. It's an effect he achieves by building his own oddball equipment and ignoring the recording industry's conventional wisdom of mixing boards, overdubs and multi-tracking.

Better still, ask the guys who were so appalled to come upon Sprey's tumbledown home, his rented rural outpost in the creeping D.C. suburbia along U.S. 301, just east of Upper Marlboro.

Burke, the congressional aide, who discovered Sprey through music but now consults him on military affairs, says, "He's just a radically different thinker, and has a different take on everything."

Coram, the writer, who has interviewed most of Sprey's old gang at the Pentagon, says, "He probably has the most intimidating intellect of anyone I've ever met."

Williamson, the musician, who coaxed his bluegrass band into recording at Mapleshade, says, "The first playback did it for all of us. We passed the headphones around, listening to the tape, and everybody's jaws just dropped down to their knees."

Then there is Spinney, Sprey's one-time partner in Pentagon rebellion: "Pierre goes into things like a rapier. He is the ultimate empiricist."

So who cares, then, if his cluttered household will never make the cover of Martha Stewart Living. His mind is moving too quickly to notice the mess.

The problem with insulation

"That's the way he has always been. He is extremely focused, and everything else just falls by the wayside," says another ex-Pentagon buddy, James Burton, who recounted their struggles to reform the Defense Department in his 1993 book, The Pentagon Wars.

But his real magic, according to Chuck Spinney's wife, Alison, is in making visitors forget the surrounding mess as well, whether they've come for a gourmet dinner, a recording session or to discuss the latest logistical capabilities of the U.S. Air Force.

Says Alison (who refers to Sprey as "the sexiest man I've ever met" as her husband laughs along): "He's perfectly charming, and he can talk to anyone at any level about anything, and make you feel great about it."

Anything?

Well, how about stereo speaker cable, a pretty dull topic but one that can get him rolling. It turns out that's what those copper ribbons hanging from his hat rack by the door are. Sprey and engineering buddy Ron Bauman designed them, and sell them in the Mapleshade catalog. Closer inspection shows they're paper thin, and sleeved in something like cellophane. Whatever happened to regular old stranded wire?

"We never use stranded wire," Sprey says. "As soon as you put threads of wire together, you start ruining the sound."

But what's with the clear insulation? Wouldn't the plastic stuff from Radio Shack be sturdier?

"You have to think of a wire as a field," he says, warming to the topic. "A wire is almost like an antenna with a field around it that is expanding and collapsing with the music. And the field around the wire, no matter what the insulation, extends out to several feet.

"The problem with insulation is, all of them absorb energy from this field. When the field goes through the plastic, it polarizes molecules in the plastic ... and that means the music is losing a little of its dynamic edge. It takes the excitement out of the music, because the dynamic peaks get compressed a little. And then, even worse, the plastic re-releases the energy. ... But it's delayed, so it's like a smearing.

"So, instead of hearing a clean hit of a drumstick, it's a little spread out in time. The pluck of the guitar is not quite so crisp. A singer's sibilance, instead of sounding like a pure breath, it sounds a little like tearing paper."

Technical, yes, but somehow palatable.

Pick another subject. The war in Afghanistan, for instance. Conventional wisdom says the U.S. Air Force did a bang-up job by flying a relentless stream of missions, right?

Sprey, still very plugged in on these matters, shakes his head with a hint of impatience.

"It was a very puny effort," he says. "In the Gulf War they were flying 1,000 to 1,200 sorties [missions] a day. In Yugoslavia, they were flying 250 sorties a day. In Afghanistan they were flying 60 sorties a day. It was like a joke of a war. Of course, they were maxed out. It's a sign of where we've gotten, because they were totally constrained by [refueling] tanker capacity. F-18s were tanking six times per mission to get to Afghanistan and back. Taking a drink three times on the way in and three times on the way home. So, with all the might and with all the $300 billion a year, we're only able to deliver 60 sorties a day over Afghanistan."

That sort of lecture is vintage Sprey, Burton or Spinney would tell you, a brief pyrotechnic display not only of his Filofax brain but of his worldview.

"Things are rarely gray with Pierre, they are either black or white," says Burton, now a member of the Loudon County, Va., Board of Supervisors. "He was feared by many in the Pentagon, and greatly disliked by many, because he took no prisoners, he minced no words, and he was usually right."

'I made myself pretty unpopular ...'

Maybe it's in his blood, a French-German heritage offering a double genetic dose of certainty.

He was born in Nice in southern France, the son of a classical violinist from the Rhineland. His memories of the Old World are few and fleeting -- beaches, mountains, goats. In 1941, when he was 3 and Europe was coming apart under the boot tread of the Nazis, his family moved to New York. He grew up in Queens, attending a high school for the gifted.

As a boy he devoured books on famous air aces, not just for the heroic tales but for the technical stuff -- their maneuvers and stunts, the way the aerodynamics worked. At age 15 he enrolled at Yale University, double majoring in French literature and mechanical engineering.

In summers, he worked for Grumman Aircraft, dreaming of someday designing planes. Evenings, he'd sometimes hang out with local musicians who escorted him into the world of jazz, a smoky, nocturnal realm where the reigning deities were named Dizzy and Dexter, Miles and Bird, Monk and 'Trane.

His time at Grumman taught him that it might take 20 years before he'd actually design a plane, so in graduate school he shifted gears, taking a master's in engineering from Cornell in statistics and operations research in the early 1960s. Degree in hand, he moved into a slum apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The rent was cheap, but the place was a dump, so he fixed it up and, with a friend, started a reading center for neighborhood kids. At night he headed out to nearby jazz clubs.

In 1966, he moved to Washington, part of a new cadre of analysts being brought together by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Dubbed the whiz kids -- "young, arrogant and very smart," Sprey says -- their mission was to crawl into the deepest regions of the Pentagon budget in search of fat and dysfunction.

Sprey was assigned to analyze the way the armed forces moved troops and supplies to the front. At the time, the C-5 transport plane was the hot hauler for the Air Force -- expensive, but supposedly state-of-the-art.

"I made myself pretty unpopular by pointing out that trucks were much more important than airplanes," Sprey says. "The tonnages moved by airplanes are tiny. Trucks are what count in the theater of war. Well, that wasn't very glamorous for all those guys, so I got fired from that job." He was moved to the NATO group, analyzing all the forces for Europe. "They told me, 'You take tactical air.' So I dove into that."

Air Force doctrine then, much like today's, relied heavily on "interdiction bombing," blowing up enemy bridges, supply lines and supporting infrastructure. The enemy at the time was the Soviet Union. Sprey dug up studies that laid out the array of targets in Eastern Europe -- "hundreds and hundreds of targets" -- and calculated how many missions it would take to destroy them.

"It turned out you could have three times as many planes as anybody would ever buy for the Air Force, and the Soviets could still launch an attack with 90 divisions, and reinforce 30 divisions a month."

The Air Force wasn't exactly thrilled with the study. A particularly disagreeable colonel brought in the country's top fighter pilot, the legendary John Boyd, to shoot down Sprey's thesis. Not only had Boyd made a science out of fighter pilot skills, he was an analytical genius.

Sprey expected "a struggle to the death." But he and Boyd had read the same books on air aces and hit if off. Instead of shooting down Sprey's analysis, Boyd invited him to help with another project, the development of the F-15 fighter. It was a fine partnership, though not without its own dogfights. "We had some knock-down, drag-out battles," Sprey says. "He was incredibly pig-headed, and so was I."

In the end, Sprey says, the Air Force "ruined" the F-15. "They put so much [technological] crap on it that, after all the beautiful work he'd done, they ruined it. That's when we decided to go underground as bureaucratic guerrillas, designing the F-16." The result was the world's most maneuverable fighter jet, although it, too, was later "ruined" by additions of expensive and unnecessary features, Sprey says.

But bigger things were yet in store for the Boyd-Sprey team. Along with Burton, Spinney and a colonel named Robert Dilger, they began the Pentagon's tumultuous reform movement, announcing their arrival in late 1979 in an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled "Muscle-Bound Super Power."

As Burton later explained in his book: "Their goal was to change the military's thinking about people, tactics, and strategy; the kinds of weapons the Pentagon bought; the manner in which these weapons were tested; and the budgetary decision-making process associated with buying and fielding those weapons." The reformers' test of a weapon's effectiveness: How well does it work for the pilot, or for the soldier in the field?

That sort of thinking had already produced the A-10, Sprey's proudest achievement. He'd long given up on the idea of becoming an aircraft designer, but backed into the job anyway in the early 1970s, finding himself heading the design team for the Air Force's first and only close support attack plane -- a plane for getting down and dirty in support of infantry, going after tanks and artillery at low altitude. Naturally, the Air Force wanted little to do with the project, leaving Sprey's team plenty of autonomy.

The result wasn't much to look at. The A-10's wings don't slant prettily as with most fighters. They're perpendicular, and bulky-looking engine tubes are mounted on either side of the body just in front of a wide-finned tail. Its looks earned the nickname Warthog, and its low speed had few pilots clamoring to fly it. But it was built to take a licking from ground fire and keep on ticking, and it was maneuverable enough at low speeds and altitudes to let a pilot easily spot and hit targets.

For all that, Air Force brass still hated it, and kept trying to kill the program, even after a test against 500 tanks in the California desert produced stunning results. It was only deployed during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 after the military high command insisted.

All it did was out-perform virtually every other weapon. Of 1,500 Iraqi tanks destroyed in the war, the A-10 is credited with taking out 1,100. It also took out about 1,000 of the 1,200 artillery pieces destroyed. Best of all, though, it brought most of its pilots home safely, sometimes after taking repeated hits. Coram tells of a video showing an A-10 returning from an attack with holes in the wing.

"The pilot dismounts, kisses the aircraft then runs like hell," Coram says. "Pierre saw that, and I think it was one of the great moments in his life. He is just a great patriot, and I think he has accomplished more for this country than any 10 generals who never did anything but get promoted."

Sprey has few good things to say about most of the rest of the Air Force's arsenal. Stealth aircraft? An expensive folly. Hard to fly. And anything but stealthy.

Today's other fighters?

"A fighter airplane today is just a technology laundry list," he says with dismay. "It's not something to execute a mission and shoot down other airplanes. It's just there to carry technology and to create a vehicle to funnel money to defense contractors."

Wildlife in the Steinway

All through his years as a Pentagon employee and consultant, Sprey stayed in touch with the world of jazz, kept befriending musicians, and in the mid-1970s, began carting a reel-to-reel tape machine to clubs to record his friends in action.

"At that point I wasn't anxious to create the world's greatest sound," he says. "I wasn't even an audiophile. It was mainly kind of an archival instinct to record great stuff that I'd attended."

It would be left to his old buddy from the A-10 project, Bob Dilger, to turn Sprey into a true believer in high-end stereo components. It happened in the early 1980s. By then Dilger was a Pentagon outcast. He'd put his engineering skills to work redesigning an expensive stereo turntable. Sprey scoffed at the $1,000 price tag. "Give me a break," he'd say. "I can get one for fifty bucks and it turns the records at the same speed."

Then one day, while visiting Sprey in Washington, Dilger set up a high-end stereo system in the living room and asked Sprey to take a listen. "It took all of about 45 seconds," Dilger recalls. "And he said, 'I have been converted.' "

For Sprey, it was a revelation, "an order of sound I'd never heard before," and he quickly upgraded the equipment for his recording sessions at clubs. A few years later, another friend nudged him further.

It was Shirley Horne, a singer-pianist he'd taped many times. Sprey had an old piano lying around in his apartment that he thought she might be interested in playing, a 1911 Steinway left behind by an ex-girlfriend. Trouble was, it was falling apart. "There were cracks in the case," he recalls. "Wildlife inside. And I was starting to feel very guilty about it." He hired some guys to rebuild it, and when they returned it four months later he called Horne. She fell in love with it, he says.

"So I said just treat it as yours. Play as late as you want. ... One night about 3, she's sitting at the piano and she says, 'Pierre, baby, I want to make my next record on this piano, and I want you to be my engineer.' "

Sprey was then living elsewhere in Prince Georges County, another big old house called Mapleshade. They spent two weekends recording.

"We had a ball," Sprey says. "Shirley brought in some friends, some of her drinking buddies. And we cooked, and served food and just had a great time. So I decided to hang out my shingle as a weekend studio."

He was still doing military consulting, and the more he looked at the music business, the more it reminded him of what had gone wrong at the Pentagon. He was determined never to fall into the trap that seemed to have ensnared the recording industry -- a blind (or perhaps deaf) devotion to new technology for its own sake.

"Essentially, all the technology you have today works to hurt the music," Sprey says. "It makes life convenient for engineers. It allows you to take people who can't make music very well and allows a lot of them to sound pretty good."

But all those electronic bells and whistles -- the extra reverb, the extra equalization, the compression, all those things so convenient for engineers -- "take a little life out of the music. And by the time you've applied 50 or a hundred of those things, the music doesn't sound anything like it would if it were played in your living room."

Top-notch jazz talent was soon knocking on his door. Saxophonist Clifford Jordan came. So did sax great Hamiet Bluiett. Pianist Walter Davis Jr. stepped inside the house, took one look at the clutter and the strange equipment and said, "Ah, Edison's lab."

Within three years, Sprey had let his consulting business die and was recording full-time. He saw that he also needed to start his own record label, "otherwise these master tapes were never going to see the light of day."

His home soon became a hangout as much as a studio. Musicians stayed overnight. He cooked for them, drank with them, never put them on a clock.

"I make that a matter of principle," he says. "We record as long as anyone wants to play. We start as late as you want or as early as you want. I've had sessions where Clifford Jordan started at 8 or 9 in the evening and went until 11 the next morning."

The only missing piece in Sprey's formula was someone who could help produce the recordings, a calming personality who could help regulate the occasionally volatile chemistry between performers. The answer was pianist Larry Willis, a fine musician and composer in his own right, who now lives at the house when he's not touring.

Technologically, Sprey's recording technique, like his airplanes, is deceptively simple. He records on two tracks, not 32. Analog, not digital. His custom-built microphones look like spatulas or funny little boxes. There's all that weird wiring. And he doesn't use a mixing board -- or overdubs, compression, noise reduction or reverb. If that sounds primitive on paper, so did the A-10. The proof is in the results.

"Sprey's Mapleshade recordings are excellent," raved Down Beat magazine, "featuring a crisp, live sound." "Something important is happening in Upper Marlboro," said CD Review. "To sit down with a small stack of your very first Mapleshades is a revelation."

'Like a mad scientist'

On a warm night late last summer -- Sept. 10, as fate would have it, before Sprey's attention would be diverted to matters of air sorties and fuel capacity in the skies of Afghanistan -- we find Sprey and Willis hard at work with a crew of musicians. Singer Selena McDay is here to belt out some tunes with a small band led by Artie Sherman on a Hammond B3, the organ with a calliope roll heard in everything from gospel to "Green Onions." McDay had heard about Sprey's studio, but still wasn't quite prepared for what she saw when she walked in the door -- a phenomenon Sprey calls "Mapleshade culture shock."

He has set her up with a mike in the entrance hall, where the wood floor and open space gives her voice better resonance. Sherman warms up on the B3 a few feet away. The drummer sets up on a raised platform atop cinderblocks, beneath the angled sheet of plywood. McDay points to the copper ribbons that still dangle from the hat rack.

"I thought those were insect strips when I first saw them," she says with a laugh. "I'm not easily impressed, but I'm in awe. One thing I'll say, there's nothing traditional here."

That includes the business arrangements. McDay has brought a fax with her. It's from Sprey, and says, in part, "Selena -- Here's the standard Mapleshade contract; feel free to improve."

For the moment, Sprey is tweaking and adjusting microphones, puttering around the room in battered white sneakers, khaki shorts and a sport shirt, silver hair gleaming in the dim light. He crouches with a flashlight tucked between his knees, peering at a microphone through a pair of magnifying glasses with a head lamp. "He really does look like a mad scientist," McDay says.

A few minutes later, he checks to see if everything is ready. McDay's allergies are acting up, so he offers a glass of ginger ale, with fresh ginger grated into the glass. Before the recording starts he shuts down the refrigerator, the furnace and any other appliance that might muddy the current for the reel-to-reel recorder. His other equipment runs off packets of D-cell batteries that Sprey has pains-takingly assembled.

Just another night at Mapleshade, in other words.

Move ahead a few months later, to a chilly night in January. The brambles and trees lining the long dirt driveway are bare and waving in the moonlight. Willis, who will soon be touring again, sits at the piano, tinkering with a composition, scribbling notes as he tests a few bars on the keyboard.

When he stops for a break, Sprey gets him a beer and a chilled mug to go with it, then fetches a bowl of homemade chili and a mug of tea for a visitor.

Sitting nearby is one of his latest audio products -- blocks of solid maple to place beneath your stereo components. He and his buddy Bauman tested several materials and concluded maple was best. They purchase a supply of it that gets cut at a small sawmill down the highway, then planed by some Amish guys using water-powered equipment.

Otherwise, none of the clutter seems to have moved an inch since September, and the cushions on the couch still slide out from under you if you sit there for more than a few minutes. But Sprey is still oblivious to it all, still focused on his music, his friends and whatever else might be darting around in his mind.

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