Tom Jung of DMP: Making Musical Sense

Tom Jung's career has been dotted with numbers. In 1969, he and a partner founded Sound 80, a Minneapolis recording studio named by an advertising wizard who had previously conjured up the appellation Cure 81 for a Hormel ham, supposedly while sipping Vat 69 scotch. Some years later, engineers from another Midwestern company with a numeral in its name, 3M, stopped by with an experimental tape recorder that also employed digits. Those zeros and ones proved critical to the recordings Jung went on to engineer and produce at his next company, Digital Music Products, better known as DMP.

Jung got into the record business in 1963, the year he turned 20, when he hired on at another Minneapolis studio, Kay Bank Recording—a business named, in an old-fashioned way, for the owner's wife—and began cutting the 16" transcription discs that a radio station, the local CBS affiliate, used for the commercials it aired. He also oversaw quality control at a record-pressing plant that Vern Bank operated on the other side of town, and he frequently took an Ampex 15ips monophonic tape recorder to high schools and colleges to record bands and choirs. Jung later edited the tapes and made disc masters from them himself.

Because Dave Dudley had recorded his truck-driving country anthem, "Six Days on the Road," at Kay Bank, "we had bands coming in left and right," Jung recalls. "Vern developed a little package plan where they got three hours of studio time, the tape, and a thousand 45s" for an affordable price. Jung often recorded and edited three of those in a single shift. "At the end of the day, the tape masters were ready to go," he recollects. He worked on recordings ranging from the rock'n'roll chart-topper "Surfin' Bird," by the Trashmen, to polka, jazz, and classical recordings. It all added up to "a great, great learning experience" for a young man who would go on to engineer and release some of the world's first Compact Discs and Super Audio CDs, as well as the very first multichannel SACD, DMP's Sacred Feast, a cornucopia of classical choral selections.

David Lander: You convinced Sanyo to manufacture jazz CDs for you in Japan back in 1983, when there were only about a hundred [CD releases]—and they were all classical—on the world market. Why did you take the trouble?

Tom Jung: Because I'd spent so many years trying to get around analog problems. To me, the side effects of digital weren't as harmful. I could never get my head past all the noise and distortion coming off the surface of the disc. God, it was always so hard to make something quiet. Some people's brains allow them to create a filter and hear through this and just listen to the music. Nothing's perfect, but good or bad, I made a conscious decision to go digital and leave analog behind. I jumped in with both feet and didn't look back. I had the idea that, as long as the end product was going to be digital, I might as well get into that world as soon as possible. So I was one of the first guys to take the output of every individual microphone and convert it to digital, then do all the mixing and mastering in the digital domain.

Lander: In 1977, Sound 80 was already recording in digital. Yours was the first studio to work with 3M's prototype digital recorder. Do you remember what you thought when you first heard it?

Jung: The thing that grabbed me in that first playback was the absence of wow and flutter. Most of the recording we were doing included a piano, and getting a piano sound was always a real struggle. Doing it direct to disc or on digital tape, I could get a lot closer to what I was after. And the noise floor was just a real shocker. Those two things won me over. At the time, I didn't have the ears to recognize what some of the other problems were. When we started the record label, I could hear some of the shortcomings, but there again, nothing's perfect.

Lander: You've said the 3M people referred to the machine as Herbie. Was that an acronym?

Jung: No. One of the projects we were doing was with Herb Pilhofer, and they just started calling it Herbie.

Lander: Herb was your partner at Sound 80. He's a jazz pianist, and you did an album with him a couple of years ago, Full Circle, recorded in Direct Stream Digital and released on SACD. I hope he was easier to work with than the tape recorder named for him. I understand the machine was unreliable, and that you couldn't edit the tape.

Jung: There was no editing whatsoever. We were doing direct-to-disc projects anyway, so that wasn't a problem for us. And it was unbelievably unreliable. If you rolled the machine a little bit, it might not work. It stood about 3½' or 4' tall and had a big instrumentation transport. Tape speed was 45ips. They wanted to put 32 channels on 1" tape, so individual track widths were pretty narrow, but they used only two of the 32 channels. There were trays and trays of electronics, all prototype circuit boards that were wire-wrapped; nothing was soldered. Herbie was a machine with a mind of its own. You just hoped that if you recorded a good tape it would play back without glitches, but sometimes it didn't. Oftentimes it would just make a horrible noise in the middle of a playback, so you'd have to start over.

Lander: Dave Grusin once told me a story about making a digital recording in the early days of the medium. I think it was with Barbra Streisand. He came in the next day, played it back, and found that a substantial chunk of music was missing. Did anything like that ever happen to you?

Jung: Yup. The numbers got changed or confused, and on playback the D/A converter couldn't recognize them, so it went into mute. We had an [analog] machine running, but even though we had it, we wanted to keep the projects all digital.

Lander: You released three recordings made on the 3M machine under the Sound 80 label, a jazz album with Flim and the BB's, and two classical albums, both with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Jung: We did. One of them, with Copland's Appalachian Spring and Ives' Three Places in New England, won a Grammy for Best Chamber Orchestra Recording. And it was nominated for Best Engineered Classical Recording in 1979.

Lander: You've said that, after being in business for 10 years, Sound 80 had grown so much that you found yourself more involved in management than creative work. That led you to rethink your career and, also in 1979, to relocate. What made you choose the metro New York area?

Jung: I had an offer to work in a studio in New York. Also, while at Sound 80, I felt it was necessary to expand into location recording, so I built a remote truck. My partner, Herb, didn't think that was a good idea, so I did it myself and rented it to Sound 80 whenever there was location work. I brought the truck East and for the first couple of years did studio recording as well as running that truck, Road 80.

One of its bigger projects was a Billy Joel album called Songs in the Attic. It was for Columbia, and it was produced by Phil Ramone; we went all over the country one summer and recorded pretty much an entire tour. At that time, I was starting to get pretty busy doing work as a film-scoring engineer, so I found somebody who would buy the truck from me, and I did several movies. I enjoyed that a lot, because I really like working with big orchestras, and I got to work with some really fine film composers. It was a big rush. I learned a lot, and I was working with really high-quality people.