Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Search for Roy DuNann

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For those Jazz fans who came of age with the LP, the name Rudy van Gelder is a familiar one as the engineering force behind many of the classic Blue Note, Prestige and Savoy Jazz recordings from the 1950s and 60s. Because of his skill, Rudy was able to give those recordings a unique sound while capturing the brilliance of many iconic performers and performances.

Those of us on the Left Coast shared a similar indebtedness to Roy DuNann and his audio engineering work at Les Koenig's Contemporary Records.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles spent the time looking for a source for this piece on Roy because we thought it was the least we could do to keep the information available on the internet about a recording engineer who brought so much pleasure into the lives of so many Jazz fans through his skill and his devotion to high standards.

Given many of today’s recording techniques with their emphasis on loudness to the point of distorting the music [let alone also helping to destroy the ears of its listeners], it's certainly interesting to contrast this approach with that of the recording style used by Roy DuNann.

Ironically, the humble and self-effacing Mr. DuNann, who did so much to preserve the audio quality of the music on so many of the 1950s Contemporary Records that he recorded wasn't even a Jazz fan!

Our thanks to the writer Thomas Conrad whose initial quest to know more about the pioneering and resourceful Mr. DuNann led to this article which was originally published in the April 2002 edition of Stereophile.

© -Thomas Conrad/Stereophile, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The Search for Roy DuNann By Thomas Conrad

I don't remember the year, but I remember the moment when I first became intensely curious about Roy DuNann. It must have been about 1975, right after I moved to Seattle. I bought a Sonny Rollins LP called Way Out West, took it home, cued it up on my Thorens turntable, dropped the tonearm, and suddenly I was in a room with Rollins and Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. It was a shipping room with records stacked on shelves all around the musicians, but I wouldn't know that until many years later.

The song was, improbably, I'm an Old Cowhand, and it began with Shelly Manne striking a woodblock in the right channel, and the blows carried in a perfectly defined acoustic space that included me. Then Rollins' tenor sax came in, so real in the left channel that I believed I could walk up and touch it. Deadpan, Rollins bit off the notes of Johnny Mercer's cowboy melody, the details of his pronunciation audible in his reed, now raspy, now clarion-clear.

The label was Contemporary, and the back of the album jacket said, "Recorded at Contemporary's Studios, Los Angeles. Produced by Lester Koenig. Sound by Roy DuNann." What made the sound truly astonishing was the recording date: March 7, 1957.

I found other Contemporary albums, and discovered some extraordinary music, such as Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section and Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders and Teddy Edwards' Teddy's Ready. The sound of these albums had a naturalness and sense of space that I had never heard before — except in live music. And that purity of sound was achieved in the very early days of stereo, in 1957 and 1958 and 1960. Who the hell was this Roy DuNann?

It was not easy to find out. Lester Koenig, owner of Contemporary and producer of all of its sessions, died in 1977. He had typically provided voluminous liner notes for each album, but none of them talked about recording techniques or the engineer. Reliable reference works and histories, such as Jazz: The Essential Companion by Carr, Fairweather, and Priestley, and the scholarly West Coast Jazz by Ted Gioia, never mention DuNann, though the latter repeatedly affirms the historical importance of Lester Koenig and his label.

The most comprehensive reference work of all, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, contains no entry on DuNann, though it covers the Contemporary label in detail, even praising Koenig's "high standards" and "concern for quality" — without ever mentioning sound. It was easy to find references to Rudy Van Gelder. Van Gelder's quantity certainly exceeded DuNann's, since he engineered hundreds of famous sessions for the Blue Note label in the 1950s and '60s, and has remained active to the present day. But the quality of Van Gelder's early recordings, with their fuzzy pianos and flat soundstages, is not in the same class with Roy's.

The only people with whom I could share my enthusiasm for DuNann's work were jazz engineers and producers. Jim Anderson knew about Roy DuNann. He's one of the most respected engineers on the current scene, responsible for the lick-your-ear sound of Patricia Barber's recordings, and he absolutely lit up (over the phone) when I mentioned DuNann. Anderson remembered his college days at Duquesne, when he first heard some of the DuNann Contemporaries in a friend's dorm room and was stunned by their "beautiful golden round bloom."

Joe Harley knew all about Roy — or rather, Roy's sound. Harley is the producer of several dozen sonically exceptional recordings for labels like AudioQuest and Groove Note and Enja. He had been a DuNann fan since he was in high school in the late '60s. But, like everyone else who admired Roy's work, Harley mused, "I wonder whatever happened to him. I wonder if he's still alive." Harley was the first to tell me that DuNann's last known whereabouts were Arizona.

My respect for DuNann's achievements reached a new level in spring 2001, when I received a batch of Contemporary titles on the JVC XRCD label. They included classics like Art Pepper + Eleven, André Previn's West Side Story, and, yes, Way Out West.

For the XRCD reissue program, JVC engineers Akira Taguchi and Alan Yoshida micromanage every element of the mastering and manufacturing processes in order to get the highest-quality transfer from the original master tape. In its XRCD version, Way Out West was sublime. Another title in the batch was Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, and it made me laugh out loud. No recording from January of 1957 had any right to hit me in the face like that — Pepper's alto fiercely alive and dancing on air, Paul Chambers' bass hitting deep and hard. I had to find Roy DuNann, and ask him how he'd done it.

It was not easy. There was, as far as I could discover, not a single DuNann living in the state of Arizona. There were DuNanns in southern California, but no Roys. Fantasy, Inc. in Berkeley, California, current owner of the Contemporary catalog, couldn't help.

The breakthrough came by way of Bernie Grundman, the well-known mastering engineer who runs the BGM mastering studio in Los Angeles. I learned from Joe Harley that Grundman had briefly worked under Roy at a Phoenix recording studio in the mid-1960s. When I reached Grundman, he had some interesting things to say about Roy, and one stopped me cold. He said that Roy had moved to the Seattle area many years ago because his children lived there. "I'm pretty sure he's still in Seattle...if he's still alive."

I called Seattle Directory Assistance and got his number immediately. A high, clear, rather inflectionless voice answered on the second ring. I asked to speak to Roy DuNann.


"Is this Roy DuNann, the audio engineer?"

There was a moment of silence. "I used to be."

I suddenly did not know what to say next. "I've been looking all over for you," I finally told him.

"I've been right here," he responded in his dry, logical engineer's voice.

Roy DuNann lives about 20 miles from me, up a long, curving, gravel driveway in a log-cabin house surrounded by tall conifers and leafy trees, in Bothell, Washington, a northern suburb of Seattle. On a Saturday afternoon in the late summer of 2001, I sat with him and his wife, Dorothy, around their dining-room table while Roy talked into my portable Sony tape recorder.

Roy and Dorothy are both 81. Dorothy is neatly turned out in sweater and slacks, with beautiful hair and a warm smile. The fact that someone from a magazine (even one whose name she does not know) is there to write about Roy makes her smile frequently. Roy is more skeptical — virtually no one has asked him about his work at Contemporary for at least three decades — but willing to make his best effort to remember those years because, on the phone, he has agreed to do so. Roy is compact and light on his feet, with hearing aids in both ears, dressed in clean jeans and a western shirt. His blue eyes sparkle with alertness. He gathers his thoughts before he answers each question, and a smile plays around the corners of his mouth when he encounters certain memories.

Roy was born in Oakland, California, and went through high school in Piedmont, an Oakland suburb. He got interested in electronics in the early 1930s, when he was in junior high school. The fact that he was a ham radio operator plays into this story in several ways.

"That's probably one thing that blew out my ears — wearing headphones all the time," Roy speculates in his matter-of-fact tone. He attended the University of California at Berkeley but joined the Navy before graduating. "Pearl Harbor came along shortly after I signed up," he remembers. Along with 10 other American hams, Roy was sent to England to learn about a radical new technology called radar.

After the war, one of Roy's Navy buddies (Warren Birkenhead, also a ham) got him a job with a young company in Los Angeles called Capitol Records. Roy's first job was in quality control — not with recordings, but with the Packard-Bell 78rpm record players (including one crank-up model) that Capitol was providing to record stores for demonstration purposes. They needed a QC guy, Roy relates, because the Packard-Bells "had many problems." All day, Roy "listened to one chorus of Peggy Lee and some test tones."

He was rescued by Capitol's decision to set up its own recording facilities. Capitol had been using independent studios, but by 1947 they were selling a lot of records, and they wanted their own. They needed some technical types to outfit the new studio and set it up for them, and Roy and his friend Warren Birkenhead were drafted.

More than 50 years later, when I talked to Bernie Grundman, he remembered Roy as a "natural engineer" who "could look at a circuit and intuitively know what change to make to create a desired response." Roy's experience at Capitol was typical of a pattern that applied to his entire career. He was given a challenge, not because he had prior experience in technologies like radar or recording, but because, somewhere up the chain, someone believed that this "natural engineer" would figure it out. Through rare engineering instincts and old-fashioned American ingenuity, Roy always did. But these are not virtues Roy would claim for himself. He is the most humble of men, genuinely puzzled by the interest in his work of so many years ago.

Roy and Warren set up four lathes for lacquer mastering in Capitol's new studio on Melrose Boulevard in Hollywood. They designed an innovative system connecting two lathes with a 12" aluminum bar, which could record two originals simultaneously. Roy remembers that, even before they were finished setting up the studio, Capitol acquired an Ampex single-track tape recorder, serial no. 3.

The first engineer whom Roy saw use a lot of mikes for a session was John Palladino. Roy "thought it would be fun" to work in the studio because he liked country and western music, and Capitol had artists under contract like Tex Ritter, Tex Williams, and, later on, Tennessee Ernie Ford. From Palladino, Roy "picked up how to mike different things" and also how to operate Capitol's 10-channel tube console.

In those days, Roy emphasizes, "The engineer did everything. I set up the studio, put the chairs out, put the mikes out, punched the “Record” button on the tape machine, mixed the session, edited the tapes, cut the master...everything. The console had nothing in it but mixing controls. We did very little modification of the signal in any way except volume-wise. The final tape would be it — you couldn't modify it. Except with a scissors."

Roy became Capitol's studio manager, and in the days before engineers were identified on record sleeves, he did hundreds of sessions. He recorded Nat "King" Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (including That's Amore), Peggy Lee, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, and Stan Kenton. He says, "I never heard anything louder than standing out in front of the Kenton band. No wonder I developed hearing problems."

Capitol rented its recording facilities to other labels, and also cut masters for them. One was a Dixieland label called Good Time Jazz, owned by Lester Koenig. "Lester was a very fussy guy, a perfectionist, and he thought Capitol was the best mastering facility," Roy remembers. It's easy to understand why Koenig would want to hire Roy away from Capitol, but it's more difficult to understand why Roy would accept the offer. But life as studio manager for a large label was becoming stressful. "The business guys" at Capitol were starting to come around the studio too much. Roy liked Lester and liked Dixieland — almost as much as Tex Ritter.

Almost immediately after Roy went to work for Koenig in 1956, two things changed. Koenig decided to begin recording modern jazz, and he decided to set up his own studio. Roy knew little about the former and a lot about the latter, but his experience at Capitol had not prepared him to set up a studio in the absence of money and space. Once again, he had to figure it out.

Koenig had an office in a little building on Melrose Place, a short street off Melrose Boulevard, and in the back was a little shipping room where "a couple guys worked shipping out Good Time Jazz records." Right off the shipping room, across a narrow hall from one another, were two tiny offices, one vacant, one occupied by a publicist who wrote a monthly newsletter. In a corner of the shipping room was an Address-O-Graph machine, for the newsletter.

"Lester decided he wanted to try recording jazz groups in the shipping room," Roy remembers. "There were records stacked all over the place on shelves. We needed a little control room so we could listen on loudspeakers without feedback into the studio. So we set it up in the office across from the publicist's. Lester had a German friend who had worked at Telefunken with an engineer named Neumann. This friend had brought a Telefunken condenser microphone with him from Germany. It was named after the most famous German World War II U-boat, the U-47. Later there was a Neumann U-47, of course. It may have been the same microphone.

"The recording studios at the time were using broadcast microphones — RCAs, Western Electrics — ribbon-type dynamic mikes. This Telefunken really sounded different. Lester liked it so much he bought a few condenser mikes out of Germany and Austria, including a couple of Austrian AKGs, C-12s, that were really expensive. Lester had these AKGs and Telefunkens when I got there. They were about all he had. He was using them when he was still recording in other studios. He would bring them with him to the sessions."

Roy explains that "Lester wanted to set up the studio as cheap as possible, and make it sound as good as possible." Lester's expensive condenser mikes had high output because of the tube preamps built into their heads. When Lester took them into a recording studio (like, for example, Capitol's, which was set up for a variety of microphones, primarily dynamic), the signal coming off Lester's mikes had to be attenuated so that they did not overload the equipment.

"So," Roy continues, "it was my idea — why attenuate the microphones and then amplify the signal again? Why don't we just take the signal out of the microphones and run it through variable attenuators, and we wouldn't need any amplifiers? So that was the original console. Nothing to it. I probably had eight attenuators. That was before they had sliders, even. Couldn't find any decent sliders. Didn't even want one. We did all our mixing by turning knobs. We went from the attenuators right into the tape machine — no other equipment."

Forty-five years later, Bernie Grundman reflected that "Roy was making the best sound in the business by cutting corners. It was such a clean signal path. All the gain that was needed for the mixing function came right off the microphone preamps. Roy could mix like that, on the fly."

The 45-year-old picture begins to clarify: In a tiny shipping room, whose acoustics are a miraculous accident, often in the middle of the night after the musicians have finished their regular gigs, Roy DuNann goes to work. The drums are in one corner. There are no baffles, but a piece of acoustical material is draped on wires about 4' over the drummer's head. The musicians are as far apart as they can get, which is not far, and those superb microphones are up close on each instrument in order to minimize leakage. Forty-five years later, Joe Harley says, "Simple is better." You cannot get any simpler than this.

Today, few would be interested in the purity of the DuNann sound if the music were not so strong. Lester Koenig had taste. He brought the hottest jazz musicians on the West Coast into his "studio," and also matched them up with the best East Coast players, like Sonny Rollins, when they were in town. He created conditions in which they were able to do some of their finest work.

Koenig even had the vision to record Ornette Coleman when Coleman could not get a gig anywhere in California. Coleman's historic first two albums, Something Else! and Tomorrow is the Question, were recorded by Roy for Contemporary in 1958 and 1959, respectively.

Among the many ironies and paradoxes attached to Roy's career is the fact that modern jazz was for him, at best, an acquired taste. At one point I asked him a rather breathless interviewer's question: "What was it like, in 1958, to come in and set up a session for some new musician you didn't know, and hear Ornette Coleman play like that? Jazz was changed forever from that moment. It must have been incredible. You were there, Roy. What did you think?"

In his inflectionless voice, Roy said immediately, "I would have sent him home."

"You would have sent him home."

"Yeah. I got so I could listen to a lot of the jazz stuff and know where one chorus was going to end and the next one begin. It was important for knowing where to make a splice. But with Ornette, you couldn't tell where you were. It just started out and it ended. It wasn't music at all for me."

Shortly after Roy started at Contemporary, Koenig bought a very early Ampex two-track recorder. Roy remembers, "We put up two Altec coaxial speakers in the control room, and we started hearing things come out of two different speakers."

Koenig wanted to begin cutting his own stereo masters for stereo LPs, and bought one of the very first Westrex stereo cutting heads. In a Los Angeles junk store, Roy found a Western Electric cutting lathe that had been used on the Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer in the 1920s, and bought it for $200. He convinced a colleague from his days at Capitol, Howard Holzer, to come over to Contemporary, and together they set up the lathe in what had been the publicist's office. The publicist moved "down the street."

Their first stereo masters cut with the Westrex head "sounded terrible," and technical assistance from Westrex was not helpful. So Howard and Roy built their own 100W tube amplifier.

"Those tubes would get red-hot," Roy remembers. "Fiddling around with condensers and resistors and coils and whatnot, we were able to EQ this terrible-sounding signal so that the finished track sounded almost like the original."

Reverb was added during mastering, with a 4' by 8' EMT reverb plate that stood in the shipping room "in the big padded box it came in." Many years later, some CD reissues of Contemporary recordings sounded oddly dry and sterile because they used the masters as-is, with no reverb added. For JVC's XRCD series, Akira Taguchi added the reverb digitally.

Another step that Roy took during mastering was to roll back the 6dB high-frequency wide-curve boost that he had tweaked into the Ampex during recording. Long before Dolby, Roy was figuring out his own methods for reducing tape hiss.

Contemporary began putting out some of the first stereo LPs on the West Coast. It is only with the perspective of history that we now recognize them as some of the best-sounding LPs ever made. Contemporary also started doing mastering for other people — at first, just for friends. One of Howard Holzer's friends was Herb Alpert, who was just starting a label called A and M to record his band, the Tijuana Brass.

Roy left Contemporary and moved to Phoenix in the early '60s. His first wife's asthma was an important factor in the move. Once again he set up a studio, this time for "a guy with money who wanted to get into the music recording business." But the studio, called Audio Recorders, ended up doing radio commercials.

It was here that Bernie Grundman went to work when he got out of the army, because he knew Roy's Contemporary recordings and "idolized" him. Grundman relocated to Los Angeles, briefly worked at Contemporary himself, then moved over to A and M to run the rapidly growing label's mastering studio. Howard Holzer also worked at A and M by this time, and the two of them persuaded Roy to move back to Los Angeles and join Alpert's label. Roy was put in charge of equipment: finding it, maintaining it, rebuilding it.

He did not record any sessions for A and M — by this time he wore hearing aids in both ears. Over the years, while he cared for the equipment used to record groups like the Carpenters, those late nights in Lester Koenig's shipping room faded into the shadows of history for almost everyone, including Roy.

When his first wife died, he retired and moved to Seattle because all three of his children lived in the area. He met Dorothy at a square dance and married her in 1987.

It seems fitting that Roy DuNann's hearing aids are remote-controlled, with adjustable EQ and balance, and directional mikes. But he cannot hear today what makes his Contemporary recordings so special. When he left Contemporary, he took none of the LPs with him. He was unaware that there had been audiophile reissues of his albums, such as the Analogue Productions LP of Way Out West. He had never heard of the JVC XRCD series. Roy is embarrassed when extravagant praise of his work is read to him. When I point out that, over and over, such audio authorities as Joe Harley and Jim Anderson mention how Roy's recordings "put you in the room" with the musicians, Roy just smiles.

“It doesn't compute. We never tried for anything like that. We just tried to balance the instruments, to keep separation so people would think it was stereo."

Roy's modesty cannot obscure his achievement. Eric Dolphy once said, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." Until the mid-'50s, that was pretty much true. Music, especially improvised music, is a very different art form from painting or literature. Its preservation beyond the moment is dependent on its delivery system — the recording. Charlie Parker died in 1955, and those of us who never heard him live will never know much about what he sounded like.

But thanks to Roy DuNann — thanks to his genius for mixing on the fly at 3am, thanks to his intuitive respect for a clean signal path, thanks to his willingness to set up the studio fresh for each session, thanks to his constant fussing over his equipment, checking, tweaking, rebiasing — we possess vivid knowledge of what Sonny Rollins sounded like when he was 27. And Art Pepper in his prime. And Ornette Coleman as he sounded before he came East and turned New York on its ear.

Before I put away my Sony portable recorder and gather up the CDs spread over the dining-room table, I read Roy and Dorothy a quote from Bernie Grundman: "Roy did a lot for this industry. He showed us all how good it could be. His best recordings are not just good for their era. They are some of the best-sounding recordings of all time."

Roy shakes his head, but Dorothy, smiling to hear her own convictions confirmed, says, "I always knew my Roy was smart."

Sidebar: A Selected Roy DuNann Discography

Originally released on Contemporary, reissued on JVC XRCD
Barney Kessel/Ray Brown/Shelly Manne, The Poll Winners, JVCXR-0019-2 (1957)Art Pepper, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, VICJ-60087 (1957/1997)Art Pepper + Eleven, Modern Jazz Classics, VICJ-60245 (1959/1998)Andr;ae Previn/Red Mitchell/Shelly Manne, West Side Story, JVCXR-0209-2 (1956/2000)André; Previn/Leroy Vinnegar/Shelly Manne, My Fair Lady, VICJ-60216 (1956/1998)Sonny Rollins, The Contemporary Leaders, VICJ-60244 (1958/1998)Sonny Rollins, Way Out West, VICJ-60088 (1957/1997)
Originally released on Contemporary, reissued on the Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics
Ornette Coleman, Something Else!, OJCCD-342-2 (1958)Ornette Coleman, Tomorrow Is the Question, OJCCD-342-2 (1959)Bob Cooper, Coop! The Music of Bob Cooper, OJCCD-161-2 (1957)Curtis Counce, Sonority,* CCD-7655 (1956–58)Curtis Counce, You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce, OJCCD-159-2 (1956–57)Teddy Edwards, Teddy's Ready!, OJCCD-748-2 (1960)Victor Feldman, The Arrival of Victor Feldman, OJCCD-268-2 (1958)Hampton Hawes, All Night Session, Vols. 1–3, OJCCD-638-2, -639-2, -640-2 (1956)Hampton Hawes, Four!, OJCCD-165-2 (1958)Barney Kessel, Easy Like, OJCCD-153-2 (recording date uncertain)
* Not in Original Jazz Classics series

1 comment:

  1. A few years after that Stereophile piece ran, someone made me aware of it, as a part time recording engineer and long time member (now Fellow) of the Audio Engineering Society, I thought it would be great to honor him at an upcoming national convention soon to be held in San Francisco. That didn't work out, but I was able to alert a colleague in the Pacific Northwest Section of the Audio Engineering Society, which did, indeed, invite him to a meeting and make a presentation.

    As an audio professional, I see Roy as one of those who did it so well and contributed to preserving the literature of jazz. Others whose work I particularly appreciate are Al Schmitt ("Ray Charles and Betty Carter," Diana Krall, Shirley Horn's "Here's To Life"), and especially Wally Heider, whose '50s live recordings of the great big bands then touring are their finest sonic documents! Listen to their work -- it's all magical!


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