The Search for Roy DuNann Page 2

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 number 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.

Azteca X's picture

I was delighted to find this piece while searching for info on the new-to-me Shelly Manne and Andre Previn recordings, and the XRCDs in particular.  I appreciate the justice you have done to this man's story.  While he might not see it like we do, the man has left some astounding work, work that a 24 year old hardcore punk enthusiast in Ohio can find in the year 2014 and go "wow" over.  As a teacher of digital audio and a lightweight recording engineer, I salute you and Mr. DuNann both.

Azteca X's picture

For anyone just coming across this, I found a great follow-up with Roy himself and Thomas the author.