These days, there’s a newly remastered something-or-other every week. But what about the guy who was the original recording engineer on the session? Let me make a case for Roy DuNann being the best engineer that perhaps you have not heard of. If you saw my post on The Three jazz trio, I mentioned that Shelly Manne’s 1950s work on the Contemporary label (in Los Angeles) is worth seeking out. One of the reasons is DuNann was the engineer.
One drop of the needle from an LP he engineered is all you need to hear. The instruments just jump outta the groove, in ways that no one has any right to expect from a record made 50+ years ago. That his work blows away recordings made after that time is just part of the mystery.
DuNann hand-built much of the equipment he used in the recording process. You couldn’t just buy something off the shelf that suited you back then. So without further ado, here is a brief sampler of four tunes, transferred directly from Contemporary LPs, all engineered by Roy. The songs are by Sonny Rollins (1958), Curtis Counce (1960) , The Poll Winners (1975) and Harold Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars (1954-57). Shelly Manne plays drums on the Rollins and Poll Winners tunes…
Contemporary’s “studio” was anything but. The few photos I’ve seen show musicians amongst shelves and boxes. “We ended up in the shipping room,” DuNann said in a 2007 video interview.* “We had to leave the records that were on the shelf, ready to be shipped out, while we recorded off in the corner.” The women’s bathroom was located nearby.
Clarinetist and Contemporary recording artist Bill Smith recalled his experience there. “I remember walking into this warehouse. It was just records stacked around they were getting ready to ship out,” Smith said. “Looking back, I’ve made many recordings and never been more satisfied than those at Contemporary.”
DuNann worked for Capitol Records in Los Angeles from around 1946, but left to work for Lester Koenig at Contemporary in 1956, in part because he didn’t like his boss at Capitol. “I had trouble with the head man. Thought he was running the studio,” DuNann recalled. He much preferred Koenig’s approach. “Lester seemed like a real honest guy. Way too much of a perfectionist to make a lot of money.” Koenig was willing to spend money where it really counted. He was already using the world’s best microphones, AKG C-12s and Neumann U47s…before they were called U47s, or so says DuNann.
DuNann close mic’d the band members, effectively eliminating most of the room sound. Say what you want about the pros and cons of close miking, Smith appreciated it. “With Roy, I always remember he got such a beautiful sound out of my clarinet,” Smith said. “The mic was so close to the clarinet. Lester (Koenig) complained, ‘Bill, we’re getting your breath sound and clicks.'” Smith didn’t quite know what to do about it, so he kept on breathing and clicking right into the mic and in retrospect, it worked.
“Those mics had tubes**** in them,” DuNann said. “The levels were so good, so high out of those original condenser mics, they had to put attenuators in them to cut ‘em down, so it didn’t overload the input of the mic preamp. We put a pot (potentiometer) in them instead and mixed that way.” In other words, the mics were pretty much plugged directly in the tape machines, and the pots (essentially a volume control knob) were used to mix, or adjust the recording levels… with nothing else in between. DuNann’s recording system was about as simple as it could be and ended up becoming the holy grail of workflows. The mic (and pot system he hand-built) got out of the way.
Wanna read a February 1980 article from Recording Engineer/Producer Magazine about how to mod a U47 for line level output? Click here for a PDF! (sorry, it’s a scan from a xerox, not the best quality)
“Probably Sonny Rollins was done with pots like that, right in the mic circuit,” DuNann said, referring to one of Rollin’s best known and best sounding works, Way Out West (Contemporary Records, C3530, 1957). DuNann recalled that when he miked drummers, he probably used one or two mics, as witnessed in the photo** shot inside Contemporary’s studio during a Rollins’ session (at right). Look closely and you’ll see two mics at about eye level to Shelly Manne. Those mics must have really rejected everything behind and to the side, given how the five musicians are packed in there like sardines.
DuNann is a thin, unassuming man, surprised by the accolades he’s received decades after he left Contemporary for a job at a Phoenix recording studio. He later joined Herb Alpert at A&M records in Los Angeles (Alpert is the “A”). He laments his hearing loss and that he can’t turn up the music or his wife complains, so he listens over headphones instead.
To my knowledge (as of June 2014), DuNann is still alive and living in Washington state. I wrote him a snail-mail letter but didn’t get a response. I don’t know what kind of health he is in, but do yourself a favor…and pick up a Contemporary LP (or even a CD) that has his name on it and prepare to be astounded. I know that Van Gelder’s Blue Note recordings from the same time period are considered golden, but in his own way, I believe Roy was his equal.
When Roy was asked about recording engineers today, he chuckled. And he does have an opinion about how music is made today.
“Too many knobs on the console.”
A sonic amen to that!
* I wrote this story (and used quotes) based on a video interview held by the Audio Engineering Society in 2007. It was hosted by Tom Conrad (who wrote the story, The Search For Roy DuNann). The complete AES video, which is very lengthy, is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3u46a2hHkmA. The video doesn’t really get rolling until about 18 minutes into it, however, so you might skip ahead. There are also three or four songs played in full during the interview to demo the audio quality of DuNann’s work. The sound quality, even streamed over the ‘net, is pretty darn good.
** This photo was taken from a 1992 book, California Cool. It was edited by Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham and is mostly photos of album covers from the West Coast era of jazz. No photographer is credited in the book for this image of Rollins and company, but the forward was written by jazz photographer William Claxton. It’s a fair bet that Claxton shot it. It is almost certainly misidentified in the caption.
*** Extra special thanks to sound engineer and guitarist extraordinaire Mike McGinn, of TRI Studios in San Rafael, CA., for access to a Neumann U47! I had no idea the interior of those mics were so packed! He also loaned me the article about moding a U47 for line level output. Thanks Mike!
**** The vaunted Telefunken VF-14M is the tube that Roy refers to. Its manufacture was ceased in the 1970s sometime and replacing one with a vintage VF-14M is next to impossible today.