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His world, within reach

Radio host Tom Schnabel finds harmony in a musical compound in Venice.

January 26, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

OBSESSIONS come in degrees. If you're lucky, whatever you love will prove deep enough to hold your interest all of your life. If you're determined, you'll find a way to make a living in the pursuit of it so that there is no troublesome boundary between vocation and avocation.

It doesn't have to stop there. One day you may feel the need to build a house to hold your passions. Tom Schnabel's single-minded love of the world's music has taken him just that far.

To reach the root of the story, we wind the clock back half a century. There was a song at the beginning, naturally. It was a 78 rpm vinyl record with a catchy tune for a second-grader, his twin sister and his older brother living in Santa Monica Canyon. When mom and dad stepped out, the record was slapped down on the Magnavox turntable:

Tutti Frutti, all over rootie,

Awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop bam boom!

At full volume, Little Richard's wailing hit from the 1950s sent the children running wild in what was then called the rumpus room. By whatever magic these things happen, the synapses in young Tom's formative mind clamped down on his destiny. From there, it was a natural stair step: At 15, John Coltrane opened the door on modern jazz, and, my, what an awakening. "I didn't know music could make you feel that way," Schnabel recalls. "It was incredible. It was trance music."

Today, Schnabel is a familiar personality to listeners of KCRW-FM (89.9). He was the station's music director for 11 years, and now produces and hosts the station's Sunday two-hour "Cafe L.A." program of world music. He also is world music program director for the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a music consultant to Hollywood and to the advertising industry, a recorded music producer for airlines as well as a teacher and writer.

All of which eventually grew into a problem, or a challenge, if you prefer.

Pursuing the planet's music over the decades inevitably means collecting a lot of it. A staggering volume of recordings, in fact. And that barely says enough.

Schnabel found himself smothered by the thing he loved.

"Overabundance," he explains knowingly, "is the enemy of organization."

Fittingly, a musical event brought about a solution. At a concert by the Brazilian guitarist Dori Caymmi in 1988, Schnabel met architect Bob Ramirez.

"Bob understands music; Bob understands architecture," says Schnabel.

They plunged in, and within a few years, the two finished the design and oversaw the building of a 3,000-square-foot residential music sanctuary on a small lot in Venice. "This house was built around my passion," Schnabel says, as if there could be any other conclusion.

First, the sound: Schnabel wanted to listen to music exactly as it's heard in a club. Right up front in the center.

No acoustics consultant was needed. Working together, Schnabel and Ramirez went by the rule of thumb that has guided many club owners: big space, big speakers.

The result is a two-story Mediterranean/Moroccan-flavored "listening room" in place of a standard living room. Underneath a square of upstairs balconies, the sweet spot of the room faces an alcove with speakers as tall as Schnabel and cables as thick as garden hoses to feed them without distortion.

In the corner, a bank of amps glow with the soft orange of old-fashioned vacuum tubes. Familiar stereo components are supplemented by exotica, such as a belt-drive turntable and a washing machine for vinyl LPs. Distractions, like television, are shunted off to the bedroom.

"People these days don't know what analog music sounds like unless they go to a club," he explains. Or, perchance, if they are invited to spend an afternoon with Schnabel.

The second aim of Schnabel's musical dream home was to contain his abundance.

Some people, of course, are going digital to tame their ever-expanding music collections. Schnabel checks himself so as not to be a snob in this matter. He's for anything that brings music into one's life, beginning with radio. The iPod, for instance, strikes him as "so cool. It's just ... " He pauses to pick his words.

"It's the best idea that anybody could think of. I just feel I don't need another medium. If I had become a lawyer like my brother, I'd get an iPod and a good dock. And that's enough for most people. But I don't know if I'm going to get one."

As any audiophile will tell you, technology and progress are not equal partners in the realm of music. Vacuum tubes and analog recordings are still truer to the sound wave than digital. It's the difference, Schnabel says, between hearing live music from the second row or from 100 feet away -- critically important only if you deem it so.

Not long ago, a man like Schnabel would have been described as retro, maybe hip-retro, for holding on to a significant collection of vinyl favorites. Now, imagine, he calls himself "old school" for being equally in love with the compact discs that have accumulated around him in dizzying numbers.

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