Jack Renner of Telarc: Direct from Cleveland!

Kathleen (K-10) and I first met Jack Renner—Telarc's Chairman, CEO, and Chief Recording Engineer—at Iridium, a tony jazz club here in New York. He was recording Benny Golson and the Jazz Messengers doing a rousing a tribute to Art Blakey. Now what would you think a guy who's won 31 Grammys over 21 years would be doing, exactly? Maybe feet up, a cigar languidly tracing curlicues in the air while directing his minions?

Ah, no. Jack Renner was a veritable blur of activity. He checked the mikes and did sound checks while scurrying back and forth to a small office cum recording studio just behind the stage. He also found time to make sure K-10, yours truly, Noel Lee (Head Monster of Monster Cable), and his other guests were at a good table and supplied with fluids.

The Jazz Messengers—Terence Blanchard, trumpet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Geoff Keezer, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums—were outstanding. Mr. Golson was way deep in the groove, Lewis Nash did Art Blakey proud, and Terence, I think it was, told me he reads Stereophile! What an evening. Some time afterward, while Jack was in town for a recording session, he dropped by our loft...

Jonathan Scull: I know it's been a while, Jack, but just how long have you been recording?

Jack Renner: Well, Telarc is in its 21st year, but I've actually been recording since February 20th, 1962.

Scull: February 20th? What happened on that seminal occasion?

Renner: John Glenn went into orbit, a fellow Ohioan.

Scull: How did you start? Were you, perchance, an audiophile?

Renner: No, I'm not sure I would ever classify myself as an audiophile.

Scull: [Ha!]

Renner: I was a high school music teacher whose hobby was recording, and I was looking for a way out of [teaching]. I was doing everything possible to make ends meet. I directed a church choir and a semiprofessional men's chorus. I played in jazz groups and taught private lessons. And each year I would go to the State Music Teacher's Convention and watch people get their 25-year pins. And I thought, "I'm not going to do this for 25 years. I don't want to do anything for 25 years!" So now I'm starting my 36th year in recording! [laughs] But I didn't get a pin.

Scull: So tell us the gory details.

Renner: Well, I started out in the custom record business back in the early '60s. There were a number of pressing plants around the country advertising in music magazines: "Send us your tape and we'll make it a record." I found one that was doing franchising—they set you up with professional gear and taught you the basics. My business was dealing mostly with high schools, churches, colleges, community choruses, bands, for—I hate the term—"souvenir records."

Scull: I suppose the compact cassette changed things rather drastically.

Renner: Yes, it caused a big decline in business. But it was about that time that I met my now-business partner, the President of Telarc, Robert Woods. He was a soloist at one of the local churches in Cleveland. Well, to make a long story a little shorter, Bob had some contacts in the business. He knew some people at the Metropolitan Opera, and he found some jobs for our struggling company. Bob helped us get into what we called the vanity business. There were a number of people, like principal players in the Cleveland Orchestra—huge talents—who were just not in a position to have a solo career or have a record company pick them up. So they'd come to us and offer to pay for the record if we'd record and distribute it. That really was very helpful to us. The upside was, it gave us an opportunity to record some very fine musicians. And that allowed me to continue with my goal of working with better and better people. The downside was that I'd get calls from these same people: "My grandmother in Biloxi can't find my record in the stores there!" [laughs] Anyway, that really kept us going for a while.

But it was in 1977 that Telarc was founded, and things started going in the direction that we find ourselves today. Back then, as you may recall, Doug Sax was leading the direct-to-disc revolution. Sheffield Labs was going great guns; it was obvious that was what audiophiles wanted. So we decided we'd do them one better and make a direct-to-disc recording with a major orchestra. We approached Lorin Maazel at the Cleveland Orchestra, and he said, "Well, I'm an adventuresome person, let's do it." The LP was the rather cleverly titled Direct from Cleveland and it was a three-way collaboration between us and Bruce Maier, the founder of Discwasher, and Glen Glancy, who owned a record company in California at the time.

Scull: Direct from Cleveland, was featured on Stereophile's very first color cover [of the Spring 1977 issue, Vol.3 No.12—Ed.]. How was it received?

Renner: With mixed reviews, but it put us on the map. It wasn't perhaps my best engineering effort. There were three different people saying, "I think it should sound this way—no, that way!" Then we started doing some organ recordings and getting reviews in major magazines. In July of that year, we made two recordings with Michael Murray, the organist, direct-to-disc, and we realized that if we wanted to be really serious about the record business, direct-to-disc recordings was probably not the way to go.

Scull: Was this how you got into digital?

Renner: Yeah. About August of '77 I got a call from a fellow named Steve Guy, who has since passed away. He owned a company in Hollywood called Location Recording Service. He was one of the two major companies doing the school-record business, and they'd put together quite a high-quality pressing plant called Record Technology Inc.

Scull: Ah, yes, RTI.

Renner: Right—another native of Cleveland, you know. And he said, "I think you guys owe it to yourselves to hear a digital recording." He'd just come from [an AES meeting], where Dr. Thomas Stockham had demonstrated his Soundstream recorder. Bert Whyte had used it as a backup on a Boston Pops recording. Well, they gave me Dr. Stockham's phone number and it sat on my desk for a couple of months. We still had our association with Bruce Maier; Discwasher distributed our direct-to-disc recording with the Cleveland Orchestra. Bruce sent us some Denon digital recordings he was importing. My partner Bob and I listened to them and thought something was missing. We went to the October AES convention in New York with a financial backer who had paid for the direct-to-disc recordings, and listened to Tom Stockham's Soundstream system. We were much more impressed, but still had the audacity to ask Tom to improve the high-frequency response. "If you'll extend it beyond 20kHz, we'll do a project with you." Now there I was, somebody who'd issued two direct-to-disc recordings—our main claim to fame—and we were demanding of Tom Stockham, the father of digital recording, that he make his machine sound better! [laughs]

Scull: And...?

Renner: And he said, "I'll do it." In late January, he called. "All right, it's at 22.5k, where's the project?" [laughs] So on a very snowy night in early March, Bob—who at that time lived about three blocks from me—trudged through two feet of snow to my place and we sat in front of a roaring fire and brainstormed. What would be the right first project? It had to be something really spectacular, with great dynamic range: organ, organ and brass, [or] organ, brass, and percussion. And then one of us said, "What's turning audiophiles on these days?" It took us about three seconds to realize it was Mercury Living Presence. I called Frederick Fennell—he was teaching at the University of Miami at the time—and he practically jumped through the phone when I asked him about re-recording some of his greatest Eastman Wind Ensemble hits with the wind, brass, and percussion of the Cleveland Orchestra. Fred is a native of Cleveland, by the way...did I mention that? [smiles]

Scull: No...[laughs] Pray continue...

Renner: So on April 4th and 5th in 1978 we made audiophile history with the Cleveland Symphonic Winds and Holst's Suites 1 and 2 for Military Band. It was the first commercial digital recording of symphonic music in this country. The bass drum that was heard around the world!

The pressing was done at RTI but mastered by Stan Ricker, who worked at JVC's mastering facility in Hollywood. Stan attended a number of our sessions on the first several projects because he was going to do the mastering of the LP and wanted to make sure that we were giving him a tape that could be cut. He was especially concerned about the low frequencies. Stan took the recording around to several speaker manufacturers in LA and blew up speakers all over the place! [laughs] Then Bob Woods made a presentation to Robert Shaw, who he'd sung under a number of times, and it was decided that we would next do an orchestral and choral piece. That's when The Firebird was recorded.

Firebird was the first commercial orchestral digital recording done in this country. Then, in October, we went back to Cleveland and recorded the now-famous Pictures at an Exhibition. And unbeknownst to us, that was to become the first digital recording with a world-class orchestra done anywhere in the world.

Scull: Including Cleveland...

Renner: [smiles] We had no idea—it took us several years to realize it. Decca was doing New Year's Day in Vienna with digital, and that came out about the same time. When we finally researched the recording and release dates, we found we'd beaten them! We did it in October of '78, they recorded in January of '79.

Scull: So Telarc began as a classical audiophile company?

Renner: Right, primarily because Bob and I were both classically trained musicians, conservatory grads. I was a trumpet player, Bob was a singer. A perfect combination. And we both had conducting experience with instrumentals and vocals.

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