The Search for Roy DuNann Page 3

"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&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&M to run the rapidly growing label's mastering studio. Howard Holzer also worked at A&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&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."

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.