Correspondence: Sound Judgment

Ted O’Reilly writes from Toronto about the item in the following exhibit:

Nice stuff with the DBQ. I agree with your comments about the sound quality especially. It was in the days of Professionals when that was recorded: both musicians (who knew how to play together) and technicians. “Balance Engineers” who could listen to a group play, then simply(!) put THAT sound on the air, or disc usually capturing it with three or four well-placed microphones.
I am still in awe of the hundreds of performance airchecks I have by Ellington/Basie/Herman et al. which stand up so beautifully over decades. It sure is a differently-made beast that is presented to our ears these days…

Ted’s communiqué put the Rifftides staff in mind of Roy DuNann’s imperishable engineering for Contemporary Records. To read about him, see this archives piece.

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  1. says

    Well, I was originally thinking of the anonymous radio guys who did the live remotes (“Now, from the Sky Lounge from high atop the Hotel Excelsior in downtown Drabsville, the Ginormous Radio Network presents for your dining and dancing pleasure the music of…”), but now you’ve gone and done it: Roy DuNann was the best! Some like Rudy Van Gelder (he was okay), there’s a good one in Switzerland named Peter Pfister, and I used to always work with Phil Sheridan, but DuNann was the champ!

  2. Jim Brown says

    I’m commenting from the perspective of an audio professional who has done a lot of live recording and reinforcement and broadcast and cut my teeth on broadcast remotes (not music) in the 60’s.
    With respect to airchecks — I wouldn’t assign too much skill or sensitivity to the guys who did those remotes — I suspect it was a matter of simple, lazy, and low budget. The fact is, of course, that in recording (or broadcasting) an acoustic performance, less is more, and a few mics is far more likely to capture the acoustic ambiance than a lot of mics. But somehow, my analytical engineering brain suspects that wasn’t in the mind of the remote engineer who was sent to the jazz club to record.
    On the other hand, I am VERY impressed by the consistent high level that Roy Du Nann achieved, and I suspect he WAS thinking about it. His philosophy was simple — use good equipment, keep it simple, let the musicians do their thing, and capture it. He did that awfully well. The quality of the work he did is reflected by the relatively large number of his recordings that were chose as “audiophile” reissues. For example, Rollins “Way Out West,” and “Art Pepper Plus Eleven.”
    By contrast, Rudy strikes me as a guy who was very insecure, and carefully concealed every technique lest it be copied. Not a guy who would ever share anything he had learned. The good guys share. I met Val Valentine once at an AES convention, and was struck by the modesty and human sensitivity of the man.
    The real driver of the multi-mic setup was the producer who wanted to record everything with a lot of mics to individual tracks on the recording machine, and fix all the mistakes, musical and otherwise, in the mixdown. That was a bad idea, and the music recorded that way suffers from it.
    Jim Brown
    Fellow, Audio Engineering Society and serious jazz fan

  3. says

    Jim, we’re 95% together on this, but I’m thinking of the ’30s/’40s airchecks, released on discs many years later, things like the Artie Shaw Blue Room or Goodman Camel Caravans or Glenn Miller broadcasts. They sound pretty damn good to me, to this day.
    Why would you not “assign too much skill or sensitivity”, or say “it was a matter of simple, lazy, and low budget” if, in the end, we (or at least I) can still happily listen 60 or 70 years later to the outcome? What I want to hear is the music, not the engineering.
    I realize you’re an engineer, but if I buy a Sonny Rollins record, I’d like to hear Sonny’s sound, NOT the engineer’s idea of Sonny’s sound. Therefore and again, “Thank you, Roy DuNann”.

  4. Jon Foley says

    Here’s an article that both of you gentlemen, and anyone else who cares about recorded sound, should read (if you haven’t already):
    Everything you could possibly want to know about Roy DuNann and how he created his sound.
    I am second to no one in my admiration for DuNann’s work, but the purest reproduction of Rollins’s sound – his non-amplified sound – is on the recording “The MJQ At Music Inn, Vol. 2, Guest Artist: Sonny Rollins.” When I first played that record (back in another century), I literally jumped when I heard the first Rollins track; I said, “That’s exactly what a tenor saxophone sounds like!” If you’ve ever heard the sound of a tenor acoustically, from less than 20 feet away, that’s what this sounds like. And the engineer was the great Tom Dowd.

  5. Jim Brown says

    Responding to Ted’s question, I’m commenting from the perspective of thinking I know the mindset of the guys who typically went out to do those remotes. I believe that they did it simple because that was all they knew how to do, and because it would have taken more work to do more. Yes, some of them are good quality BECAUSE one mic in the right place is nearly always better than a lot of mics.
    Rhetorical question — do you really believe the the engineers who did these remotes were any more into the music than the air-headed announcers who typically accompanied them (introducing singers James Rushing and William Holiday)? These engineers were typically “radio guys.” A small percentage may have been, like me, a music fan, but that was almost certainly the exception, not the rule.
    AND — simpler is not always better. Several years ago, I undertook a private project to gather all of Prez’s clarinet recordings from the 30s on a single CD and remaster them to restore the quality lost in the reissue process (no record scratch, no rumble, so no presence, no bass). One of those tracks was an aircheck of “Indiana,” with Prez’s clarinet far off mic and mostly buried by the trumpet section playing accents. Another mic for solos might have improved things.
    To hear what I’m getting at with respect to the skills and sensitivities of US broadcast technicians, compare the sound quality, balance, and production values of almost any jazz video produced by a US broadcaster between 1950 and 1990 with almost any jazz video produced by a European broadcaster (e.g. the Jazz Icons series) in the same time frame. These are my brethern, and they make me ashamed.
    By the way — I’ve played those remastered Prez tracks, all of them from 1937-39, for some pretty savvy audio engineers. All are blown away by the quality of most of the studio recordings. For the most part, the guys working in those studios DID know what they were doing.