Ewing D. Nunn
The story of the ORIGINAL Audiophile record label
Robert Gilchrist Huenemann
July 3, 2012
Paul Dumke’s Web Site, with Ewing Nunn’s Photo Collection
Paul Dumke is Ewing Nunn’s grandson. He maintains a web site with a collection of photos taken by Ewing. Click on this link, then on ‘Dixieland Jazz Band Pictures’ or ‘Audiophile Pictures’.
Allan Evans and the Doc Evans web site
Allan Evans is the son of the inimitable Doc Evans, and he maintains a web site with complete details of Doc’s records on various labels. The following CDs are available from the Doc Evans web site, remastered from E.D. Nunn’s original Audiophile tapes:
AP-11, AP-12, AP-29 and AP-30 are available as JCD-19.
AP-33 and AP-34 are available as JCD-312.
AP-68 and AP-69 are available as JCD-195.
Recollections by Steven Blons
(Steven Blons is the son of clarinet player extraordinaire Harry Blons. He sent the following information.)
My father, Harry Blons, was on several of those LPs, under his own name and as side man with both Doc Evans and Red Dougherty.
I was a kid when he made those recordings but I remember bits and fragments of stories he told about the sessions. Like what a fanatic Nunn was for sound and how he made them play in certain ways to get what he wanted.
Harry had great fondness for Ewing Nunn and when my youngest brother was born in 1953 he was named Charles Ewing Blons.
These recordings were, I believe, made in the 1950s. Harry was born in 1911 so he was in his 40s. I am now 59 and have been playing guitar and banjo since I was a teenager. I got to play often with my father and a few times with Doc Evans. I still play regularly with a local trad band called The Mouldy Figs, and there are several other trad bands playing in this area. But as I listen to these recordings, I'm hearing a level of musicianship and artistry that no one here is close to these days. Many of these guys worked together night after night on club dates for years and had worked out a lot of clever stuff. These bands were tight, and crisp. Still fun to listen to.
I'm trying to recall if I ever met Nunn, but I don't think so. I would have been 10-12 years old at the time.
I do remember one more thing. Nunn influenced my Dad in terms of hi-fi equipment. With Nunn's advice, Harry assembled a set of top-line components. There was a custom cabinet he had made for it all that was a fixture in our house for many years. I especially remember the big round back Bose speaker. It was the hi-fi I played all my records on as a teenager and it had a great sound. So I guess I have Nunn to thank for that.
Recollections by Don Gibson
(Don Gibson of Portland, Oregon played piano with Doc Evans and many other bands including ‘Sons of Bix’. He has also been a manufacturer’s rep for many lines of audio equipment and knew E.D. Nunn well. He does live recordings with his own extensive set of tape machines and microphones. He reiterated E.D. Nunn’s fondness for electrostatic speakers, and he submitted these comments.)
Ewing used 'Stephens' Condenser mics for all his mono recordings. (Stephens also made electrostatic tweeters - r.g.h.)
When going to stereo he built his own after testing the best that Neumann, AKG, and Sony had to offer. They are about 3/4" diameter, go out to about 20K, and are frequency modulated R.F. All of his microphones were Omnidirectional. He positioned his musicians around them rather than multiple mics and a mixer. He was a perfectionist - especially about distortion. In stereo he separated the musicians into two groups - far enough apart so there would be almost no cross-feed. He used the hall acoustics to blend this into stereo.
Several of the Audiophile recordings were available in both monophonic and stereo versions. According to Don Gibson, there were two recorders running simultaneously at the session for AP-66 – one monophonic and one stereo.
Recollections by Stan Ricker
IT WAS STATED THAT THE PRESSINGS WERE DONE AT WAKEFIELD/PHOENIX. THIS MAY BE TRUE IN SOME INSTANCES, BUT ALL THE RED ONES I HAD EARLIER, AS WELL AS THE ONES I'VE GOTTEN FROM EBAY HAVE SCRIBING INFO IN THE LEAD-OUT THAT INDICATES THAT THEY WERE PRESSED AT KEYSOR-CENTURY IN SAUGUS, CA.---------------------------------THERE IS A COMMON "V4605" SCRIBED IN FRONT OF [ OR AFTER] THE LACQUER# [LIKE 127] AND THE AP CATALOGUE # [AP-12-A].
THESE "V-NUMBERS" WERE K-C'S WAY ------LIKE AN IN-HOUSE VOL. NUMBER FOR CUSTOMER ID AND BILLING----------IT'S PRETTY CLEAR THAT EWING'S CUSTOMER NUMBER WAS 4605.....
WHEN I FIRST BEGAN WORKING FOR KEYSOR-CENTURY IN 1969, I WAS HIRED BY JIM AUCHTERLONIE, WHO WAS NATIONAL FRANCHISE SALES MGR, AND I WAS WORKING A CENTURY RECORDS FRANCHISE IN KANSAS CITY-----------------------I WAS HIRED TO THE HOME OFFICE IN CALIFORNIA IN THE POSITION OF HEAD, QC DEPT, BECAUSE OF MY KNOWLEGE OF THESE AUDIOPHILE RECORDINGS/PRESSINGS---------------------------------------JIM HAD BEEN THE MAIN PRESS OPERATOR FOR EWING'S PRODUCT!!!!!!
AND, OBTW, IT WAS I WHO CUT THE MOBILE FIDELITY "POWER AND THE MAJESTY"--------------LOTS OF FUN!
STAN RICKER MASTERING
Memories of E.D. Nunn and Frieda Nunn by Richard Greiner
(Professor Richard A. Greiner of the University of Wisconsin (retired) is an expert on many aspects of audio and has an impressive audio system in his home, with 12 amplifiers driving 48 speakers. He knew and worked with E.D. Nunn over a period of many years. I am grateful to Dr. Greiner for contributing these recollections and other information, and for teaching me much of what I know about semiconductor physics. Bob Huenemann)
Memories of E. D. Nunn (Ewing Nunn) and Frieda Nunn
By Dr. R. A. Greiner
August 7, 2002
When I go into my kitchen and look at the refrigerator I think of Ewing and Frieda Nunn. This is because there are on my refrigerator two little fuzzy magnetic bugs. One a yellow caterpillar and the other a small bright red lady bug. They were put there by Frieda as a surprise to me the last time they visited me in my home in Madison. They represent her charming wit and my fond memories of the Nunns.
I knew Ewing for many years starting in about 1950 and can clearly remember many meeting with him and his wife at each or their two homes. I do have some difficulty putting a precise time line on these many events. Please excuse some of the inaccuracies in the time line. All events and anecdotes are otherwise accurate to the best of my memory.
I first met Ewing because of my interest in audio sound reproduction. I knew a person at Allis Chalmers who was building a Klipsch horn from scratch. That was about 1947 or 48. He had exact drawings for the Klipsch horn and had gotten them from Ewing. We went together to Ewing's home to visit with him and talk about audio. I was 18 at the time and just graduating from high school, about to go to the university. I had already built a corner horn of simplified design and had tri-amplified it.
I remember this first visit well since we had a chance to listen to some of Ewing's early recordings for his Audiophile records. The recordings were monaural at this time of course. He played some 78 rpm microgroove records of his own and also the original tapes. He used a Magnacord 1/4 inch machine at 15 ips full track at the time. These were very early Magnecorders and he had tweaked them to the hilt including rebuilding some of the electronics. He modified everything he owned and generally improved the equipment. At the time he had a Klipsch horn and a Bozak concert grand loudspeaker. He was using a Fairchild transcription turntable 14 or 16 inch. It was gear driven by a large motor hanging underneath and a massive gearbox and drive shaft. He also used Fairchild pickups and another I cannot place at the moment. I remember the exact look of the pickup, but not the name. It was mono of course and had a stylus that was straight up and down sticking out of a little hole in the bottom. Somehow Audax comes to mind, but I am not sure at all. It definitely had no vertical compliance. It did sport a microgroove tip.
I know he was friends with Paul Klipsch and Rudy Bozak and many other audio personalities at the time. We were very impressed with the sound, which was some of his Jazz recordings used on his early Audiophile records. I remember that I was just a student with no income and he was very generous with giving me some of his early Audiophile records. He would play one and then look at it very carefully. There might be a small spot on the label so he would take a crayon and make a big black check on the label and give it to me saying, "This is a defective one, you can take it along with you." I know he gave me at least a half dozen or more records this way in the several times I got to visit with him while I was a student.
I also heard the train and thunderstorm records which he did right from his home. The microphone for the thunderstorm was placed under a metal awning on his back porch. The trains ran right along his back yard lot line and he captured them for these early recording efforts.
I did not see him for a few years in the early 1950s since I had gone to the University in Madison. But by the later 1950s he had build a new home in Saukville. I by then had my Ph.D. degree and I visited him there many times while I was a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I had also done some publishing in audio journals and was already a long time member of the Audio Engineering society. I joined the AES in 1954 and was elected a fellow in 1984. I knew a lot of people in the society since I regularly went to national meetings and was on various committees over the years. Ewing was well known for his recording techniques by society members.
Ewing's new home was designed for audio recording, which was a very big hobby for him. He was one of the Nunn Bush shoe company Nunns and was privately well to do as a result. I think he did not need to work in the usual sense but that did not mean he was not busy all of the time. In any case, the house was beautiful. It had a large great room that was about 30 by 50 feet with a 30 foot cathedral ceiling. At one end was a control room with a regular control room window looking into the recording space. I remember that there were at least three large sofas, a grand piano and an Allen organ. Also a floor space to set up a performing group. The main speaker system, still monaural was a double Bozak concert grand system driven by lots of McIntosh amplifiers. I think he may have later put in some Marantz amplifiers since he also knew Saul Marantz of course.
He was then using Magnacord tape machines, much modified, and Ampex also much modified. The control room was modest in size, about 12 by 20 I would guess, but loaded with equipment. There he had Fairchild turntables, and a cutting lathe. As I remember a Scully or possibly a Western Electric. He used a Western Electric cutter head with a McIntosh amplifier and head feedback. It had hot stylus cutting capability. By this time he was using B and K microphones and had some of his own design. His own were small microphones that looked like small silver saltshakers about 2 inches tall. They used a frequency modulation circuit. He also had some Sennheiser microphones. I remember consulting with him about many electronic circuits since I was specialized in solid state devices and electronics.
As stereo came to the fore, Ewing got a very large pair of planar dipole
I do not believe the story of a turntable mounted through the basement to a concrete pillar. I think the control room and main great room had no basement. There was a basement under the rest of the house. The tables were mounted on large steel cabinets that sat on the concrete floor of the control room. The same for the cutting lathes. So they were on a concrete floor and thus very solid.
He also had a company that made road barrier flashers. It was called Northern Lights. I believe it was a very successful company but I do not know much about it. These flashers were solar cell charged during the day and flashed at night. We see them currently everywhere. He also had a few other electronics projects, some of which were successful. But his true love was recording and jazz music.
I regret that I do not have a chronology of his recordings. At one time I had all of his records from the beginning through the first 50 or so. His tapes and the Audiophile name were sold to someone and I lost track of how to find them. Only recently have I found a source for some CDs of his work.
He and Frieda loved shuffleboard. He had a full sized board next to the house and they played regularly. Frieda was a wonderful and charming person. She was a great cook as well. Shrimp Scampi was a favorite. I had it many times with them. He was a nut on coffee. He made the brew by the cold extraction method. Coffee steeped in the refrigerator and the liquid put into a cup with hot water. It was very nice and strong but smooth. I remember that Ewing never really spoke ill of anyone. But he would sometimes refer to someone as a "nut." That was as strong as it got.
One time when I got there he was recording pocket watches. He had the microphone a fraction of an inch from the watch and cotton packed all around the setup. He then played the watch recording back very loudly creating gigantic clicking and thumping. What fun! Ewing was insistent on using two microphones and placing the members of the group to get the balance he liked. When he set them up, he put Xs on the floor and each player had to stand on "his own X." Frieda had the job of watching them and if they crept off of their X toward one of the microphones she would tell Ewing. He would stop recording and get them back on their Xs. One time, in a very large gymnasium, he had trouble with a bass player. To get balance he kept moving the bass player back and back. Finally the poor guy was against the back wall many feet from the group. That was just right for Ewing and that is the way he recorded it.
Ewing was very precise about how he wanted things. Still he was a gentle and charming person. It was a pleasure to know him. After they moved to Texas, they still visited Wisconsin regularly. I had them to my home in Madison several times. After Ewing died, Frieda still wrote to me each year for a number of years. It was a pleasure to have known them both.
(This article by Larry Forbes appeared in the Autumn, 1985 issue of The Absolute Sound, page 95.)
OF MEN AND RECORDINGS
EWING D. NUNN: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
Over the years, The Absolute Sound has praised the many great recording engineers of yore - Lewis Layton of RCA, Robert Fine of Mercury, Bert Whyte of Everest - who were there at the dawning of the stereo age and whose work still astonishes us today. But one man has gone unacclaimed: Ewing D. Nunn, founder of the legendary Audiophile label, who was perhaps the greatest of them all. For 30 years, Nunn produced some of the finest sounds ever put on disc.
In addition, he belongs to that strange non-tribe of beings whom the British dub ec-centrics and we in the US call originals. He had all the earmarks: wealth, wit, genius, and a contradictory and restless spirit.
Ewing Nunn, born on November 25, 1900 in Bonham, Texas, was the son of Henry L. Nunn, one of the founders of the Nunn-Bush Shoe Company. While he was but a child, the family moved from Texas to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and there Nunn's precocity for things electrical first surfaced. At the age of ten, he discovered radio, a field equally youthful. At thirteen, Nunn got his first transmitting license1 and built and operated his own radio station. "This was something he did on his own", his widow, Frieda Nunn, recalls. "He never told me much about it himself. His mother used to talk about it. He got into a few scrapes. There were some fires on the local power lines. And then the antennae and things were troublesome. He was one of those kids who was always on the roof. His mother used to stand by with her heart in her mouth."
At sixteen, Nunn enlisted in the Navy and that kept him out of trouble for awhile. He was put to work as a radio instructor. His formal schooling ended with high school, but he continued educating himself for the rest of his life, in part by experimenting with electronics. At twenty-three, he became vice president of the Radio Parts Company in Milwaukee. About this time, he began on his own to make a little radio which he called the Cascade. "It was a good-sounding radio," Frieda Nunn says. "A nice little thing, and popular. I even had one way back then. This was long before I knew him, of course. When I met him, I still had mine. I kept it, too. It became a joke between us." Nunn manufactured the first police motorcycle radio receivers, for Harley Davidson Company.2
Then in 1937, a man asked him to make what farmers euphemistically refer to as a "fence controller" - an electric fence to you and me - and so Northern Signal Company was born. Nunn built the fence: His problem, according to Mrs. Nunn, was one of circumventing existing patents rather than inventing a design. He went on to produce flashers for road barricades as well, and these devices became Nunn's major vocation for the next 30 or so years. Intermittently he found other outlets for his inventiveness (among them a toy called Hootenanny, a device with arms which drew marvelous geometric designs). Whatever he concentrated on, he could never resist the urge to "make it better". And in the Forties he turned to his avocation and the big love of his life -music.
Nunn had begun collecting records in 1920, "the year before Enrico Caruso died and Arturo Toscanini cut his first disc for RCA Victor"3. In the midForties, in a quest for better sound than he heard on the records he'd bought, Nunn decided to make his own. He was, of course, uniquely successful.
He had originally intended to produce small quantities of records just for his friends, but his efforts were so superior to commercial products they attracted the attention of the audiophile community. His records caused a sensation at the New York Audio Fair and other exhibitions. Charles Fowler of High Fidelity magazine was an early enthusiast of Nunn's records. So was G.A. Briggs, the great speaker designer of Wharfdale, who used them during his famous demonstrations at London's Festival Hall.
This recognition created demand, and so, in 1947, what had started as a hobby became Audiophile Records, of Saukville, Wisconsin.
Audiophile's first commercial issues were 78-rpm monophonic microgroove discs with 19 1/4 minutes of playing time per side. They were pressed on clear red virgin vinyl by Wakefield of Phoenix, Arizona (jazz collectors to this day refer to them as "Great Old Reds".) These records Nunn himself referred to in the album notes as "Grade A".
The discs are intrinsically beautiful. They exude quality: thick, dense ruler-flat red vinyl, the edges milled as finely as cut crystal. The 78s were packaged in envelopes, complete with a flap affixed with the Audiophile seal. The back of the jackets contained technical information, record cleaning information (he suggested Joy), recommended cartridges (Pickering or Fairchild, mounted in a Fairchild 190-D arm). The album notes suggest that the user frequently has his playback equipment checked for continuing good performance. "We would advise," he wrote, "against the purchase of this record if the user is unable or unwilling to follow the above suggestion." 4 Wonderful.
The sound on those records in unforgettable. Vivid. The wide dynamic range afforded by 78-rpm brought instruments to life with keen realism, and this despite the limitations of the playback equipment of the day. The dynamic range permitted by the high groove velocity certainly rivals that theoretically claimed for today's CDs - without CDs flaws, of course. On the great speakers of the Forties and early Fifties - 800 pound Altec Voice of the Theatre horn-loaded behemoths or the massive Electro-Voice Patricians - the sensation was visceral. Those 78s still are unrivaled in sonic purity and dynamic range.
Nunn went over to the LP format only after he became convinced that phono cartridges had been sufficiently improved to justify the slower speed "although, necessarily, with some sacrifice in quality. We designate such records as 'Grade B', which indeed they are, by 'sound' comparison."
Nunn's recording equipment was primarily of his own design. He was the forerunner of men like Keith Johnson, who are never satisfied with commercially-produced equipment. What electronic equipment Nunn didn’t make entirely, he had modified to meet his specifications. He owned two large houses in the Milwaukee area and each served in turn as his recording studio and laboratory. And his wife says he was never happier than when he was alone in his lab delving into some experimental circuit.
Audiophile's initial recording system was centered on a Magnecord M-80 tape recorder modified to run at 30-ips. Later when Audiophile began making stereo records, Nunn switched to a Magnecord M-90, finally to a ReVox machine, (modified, of course.)
Nunn tried many different microphones. In the early days, he used condenser microphones from Stephens Tru-Sonic, Neumanns from Germany, and others. He tried modifying commercially-built equipment. He was never entirely satisfied with the results and finally, around 1960, he built his own condenser microphones. They had small diaphragms to keep the system resonant frequency well above the range of audibility. The vibrating diaphragm frequency-modulated an RF signal, with the cables of a fixed length as part of an RF tuned circuit. After Nunn's death they were sold.
To say that Nunn was ahead of his time is an understatement. His technical achievements were, and still are, a paradigm. Though he would have scoffed at the notion, those who knew him considered him a genius. He was also a perfectionist. He would sometimes spend an entire day getting just the right location for his microphones. In some of his early mono recording sessions, Frieda Nunn would hold the microphone, since the human body is the perfect vibration absorbing microphone stand. "There all of us were, playing, and there was that one microphone Frieda was holding. And she would turn it from time to time. When somebody played his solo, she'd turn it and so on. That was all they did - and when you think of all the microphones today!" Knocky Parker, the jazz pianist, recalls. "It was a lot of fun," says Frieda Nunn.
When Nunn found what he thought to be a suitable recording location, he would test the acoustics by rolling the tape and walking about in a predetermined pattern, clapping his hands. He could then tell on playback just how well the room could be recorded. (He monitored not with speakers, but with a pair of Permoflux headphones.)
He was never satisfied. After a recording session in the early Seventies, he wrote, "I think if the records were melted, they would make good chewing gum; but aside from that, I have difficulty figuring out what they are good for." He rejected flattery. He once said he had made only one good record: Yellow Dog Blues (AP-66). He had a crusty demeanor, and a sardonic sense of humor that sometimes turned puckish. Here is a bit of vintage Nunn, from his catalogue: “The thunderstorm isn't all, however - on the reverse side of the record we have that celebrated water-dripping-into-the-bucket routine - which, as Dr. Edmund Souchon once said '...caused severe taxing of the restroom facilities,' when played in his home during a meeting of the Ladies Aid Society." In his album notes he never left off his gentle ragging nor did he let up in his efforts to get quality.
He was, in fact, a lover of quality in all things. His favorite camera was a Hasselblad and he was expert with it. He was equally at home with 16mm cinematography and gave lectures on techniques of film-making. He used to talk wistfully to his son, Ewing D. Nunn, Jr., about buying a Duesenberg, back in the days when that was the ermine's fur. But a streak of Yankee thrift forbade such extravagance.
Nunn's friends still treasure his prolific correspondence; much of it was hilarious. They urged him to write to a larger forum, but he refused, save for one foray, an article of classic humor about a design for a squirrel-proof bird feeder. This appeared in The New York Times garden section in 1974.
Nunn was a man of rather austere principles, despite (or perhaps because of) his love of fine things. He quit smoking abruptly in 1954. "I reminded him of a cough he had," Frieda Nunn says. "He hadn't noticed it. I thought it was from the cigarettes. He didn't say anything, but several days later, I noticed that he wasn't smoking. 'Oh, I quit,' he said. And he never went back." From then on, he wouldn't even allow cigarettes in the house. On recording sessions he'd rag the musicians a bit. He couldn't stop them from smoking of course. But he could and did refuse to tolerate liquor. He was a teetotaler and wouldn't make a recording when alcohol was on the premises. "He said the musicians didn't perform well when they were drinking," Frieda Nunn says. "He was right."
His recording sessions were fast-paced and business-like, if somewhat bizarre. Some of the musicians thought of him as stern. "They didn't like him much, I guess. But the good ones loved him," Mrs. Nunn says. Sometimes the players would grumble among themselves about his no-nonsense direction, never suspecting that he could hear them through his monitoring headphones. He delighted in this rather innocent eavesdropping and never let on.
Nunn never really cared for stereo. He opposed the sonic compromises the 45/45 stereo cutting technique inflicts on the record groove. He once wrote a mock sales booklet: "This recording was made in sterno. Only sterno captures the true beauty of the music....A recording made in sterno enables the listener to hear with both ears; people have found that listening with only one ear requires a lot of practice...." 5
He changed reluctantly with the times; and in the late Fifties and Sixties, Audiophile began to make stereo records. We cherish them, the blessed few, to this day.
His stereo recording format for traditional jazz groups generally consisted of one microphone for the rhythm section and one for the "front line" - the horns and the piano. He was a purist. He abhorred the multi-mike-with-mixer technique adopted with unthinking abandon by many recording engineers.
Decades ago, Nunn became aware of something most of us have only begun to appreciate, thanks to today's best equipment: the importance of capturing the sense of acoustic space on a recording. He preferred acoustically "hot" rooms, a formidable technical challenge that many recording engineers prefer to avoid, because it is very difficult to get right. Nunn considered this aspect of the acoustic picture a necessity, and accordingly, he made many recordings on location - in clubs, halls, churches, ballrooms and occasionally movie theaters (but never with a live audience). Nunn and his wife drove to locations all across the country, with 500 pounds of equipment. He would go to where his musicians were, then scout the town for a proper recording environment.
An example of how well he accomplished this objective can be heard on The Salt City Six Plays the Classics in Dixieland (Audiophile AP-80). This recording was made in the main ballroom of the Penn Sheraton Hotel in Pittsburgh. The instruments are etched in three-dimensional space, and the boundaries of the ballroom are equally well defined. I sent a copy of this record to HP6, and he promptly put it on his Super Disc list, which should tell you something.
Nunn's records are bright - not in the pejorative sense, but in the same way live brass are bright. To describe the sound is not necessary - it has all the qualities of classic analogue: a three-dimensionality of the instruments, defined in space with that palpable quality so treasured by audiophiles.
With the exception of some later recordings, Nunn used the two-mike, two-track stereo recording technique, with an "air" mix-down, a technique of recording straight into the tape-recorder. (Conventional multiple mikes go into a machine called a mixer; each mike has a separate volume control. In the "air" mix-down, the volume, once set, is basically left alone.) This purist approach has defeated many a recording engineer. The two microphones must be spaced far enough apart to avoid bleed-over, which distorts the size and shape of an instrument. But widely-separated microphones often result in a sound stage with a hole in the middle. (The larger the ensemble the easier it is to use the two mike/two track technique - as on the very earliest Reiner/Chicago RCA recordings.) Bleedover was intolerable to Nunn, so he always opted for the lesser evil, a hole in the middle of the soundstage. He took great care in placing the microphones to keep the soundstage otherwise coherent; but there is a definite hole-in-the-middle on many of his stereo records. We forgive this minor anomaly as we bask in the glorious sound. What's more, the hole-in-the-middle effect here is not a vacuum, but live room space, part of the true acoustic environment, and pleasing to the educated listener.
In his last years Nunn did occasionally use more than two microphones - usually no more than three - plus a simple mixer. These records are excellent by any standard, with the instruments ranging clear across the soundstage, left, right and middle.
Nunn retired from Northern Signal in 1965, which gave him more time for his record company. Then in 1969, he sold the Audiophile label to Jim Cullum, Sr., a fine "trad" clarinetist, whose Happy Jazz records Nunn had recorded for years. By then Nunn and his wife had moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Nunn took on the job as chief engineer for Audiophile and Happy Jazz. He had given up, really, only the business control. "I think he was tired of it," Frieda Nunn says. "And he wouldn't have wanted it to go downhill." He continued in this role when Jim Cullum, Jr., took over as head of the company in 1973.
The list of jazz musicians who recorded for Audiophile is long and distinguished - Paul W. "Doc" Evans, John W. "Knocky" Parker, Albert Nicholas, Raymond Burke, and others. While some of these artists are well known, others have more regional fame, such as Doc Evans, whose home base was in the Midwest. To my ear, Doc Evans's cornet rivals that of Bix or Spanier, and it is a godsend to have his tone and spirit captured in Audiophile's superlative vinyl grooves.
Nunn involved himself in the planning of Audiophile's recording sessions. His knowledge of traditional jazz was encyclopedic. Knocky Parker recalls the day he and Doc Evans were playing the verse of a Jelly Roll Morton number the way they'd played it for years. Nunn took exception, arguing that they had an incorrect verse. And a check of the original music proved him correct.
Nunn made over a 100 records between 1947 and 1969, and many are landmarks. His most famous mono recording, The Echoes of the Storm, ranks, for dynamics, ahead of Mobile Fidelity's awesome The Power and the Majesty. This record also includes some other shockingly lifelike cuts, including a drum set that sounds every bit as realistic as Hot Stix, or The Sheffield Drum Record, or Charlie Byrd's "Old Hymn" number on a 45 rpm Crystal Clear record. The storm on Echoes was later reissued in rechanneled stereo in answer to demand. That must have nettled Nunn, the purist. "He was a monophonic man," says Frieda Nunn, "no doubt about that." He once told a friend that the best way to record a thunderstorm in stereo would be to have the microphones spaced hundreds of feet apart. Logical.
Nunn's homes always had a playback system as a centerpiece. The last home in Milwaukee had a huge 28 x 41 foot living room with a vaulted open beam ceiling treated to optimize the acoustics. The living room housed a parlor grand piano. A concert grand was imported for certain recording sessions, such as the Fatha Hines sets (AP-111 and AP-113) both recorded in stereo. Frieda Nunn recalls how, as the session began, Nunn suddenly bolted from his control booth/laboratory to ask who was grunting and groaning into the microphones. Hine's agent said Hines was; he always hummed along. And Nunn had to go along with it.
Nunn's built-in home monophonic playback system included eight 12-inch Bozak woofers, four midrange cone drivers, and eight of Arthur Janszen's then-new electrostatic tweeters. The speakers were driven by two 60-watt (tubed) McIntosh amplifiers working in parallel. Behind a curtained window in the living room was the control booth and laboratory. His early playback equipment included a Rek-O-Kut turntable with two Pickering arms and cartridges. His preamp was home-built. The cutting lathe, rebuilt from a Presto chassis, was mounted on a plinth made of laminations of aluminum and bakelized canvas. Later stereo playback equipment included, at different times, full-range Janszen electrostatics and two units of three KLH-9s. Nunn upgraded his recording lathe and other equipment as technology advanced.
Nunn made a number of classical recordings. Thirteen are listed in one of his later catalogs. All but one are monophonic. The exception is the Mozart Horn Duos (AP-110), performed by Paul Binstock and Christopher Leuba on French horns - an unusual accomplishment, Nunn noted, because Mozart "composed these duos prior to the development of the modern French Horn."
Among the Audiophile mono classical recordings are organ classics: Organ Music of Germany, Robert Noehren, Organist (AP-41); Organ Music of France (AP-42); Organ Music of the Lutheran Church (AP-51, AP-55). These were recorded in various churches primarily in the Midwest; one features the magnificent Beckerath organ of the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Cleveland, Ohio. Nunn also recorded Music of the Seventeenth Century (AP-36), performed by the Ancient String Ensemble; piano solos by Arthur Dann and Margaret Barthel; the Musart String Quartet; the Fluery Trio. One great stereo recording is entitled Flamenco El Curro. Other specialty records include an organ recording of hymns; a very interesting recording of a Nineteenth Century music box; the chapel bells of Grace Church, Madison, Wisconsin; and Echoes of the Storm, which includes on the flip side the water-in-the bucket routine that is said to have caused so much distress for the Ladies Aid.
(I cannot study this body of work without wishing that Nunn, who was active during the Reiner/CSO years, could have recorded that magnificent instrument.)
The earliest Audiophile monophonic records are very, very, hard to find. They are collector's items of no small value. One very famous early recording is considered by some of Ewing's colleagues (among them David L. Howse of Ardmore Radio) as his masterpiece. That is his recording of the huge pipe organ in the Grace Episcopal Church, in Sandusky, Ohio. Robert Noehren was organist (Audiophile AP-9). For this recording, Nunn used three Telefunken U-47 microphones suspended from the ceiling. Signals from the three U-47s were fed into a Western Electric 250 mixer, and then to the Magnecord M-80.
Audiophile's 100 or so records were all issued in small quantities. For that reason, they are hard to find on the used record market. I spent nearly two years locating a couple of dozen stereo discs. I also obtained several mono records, which are very good, and depending on size of the ensemble, strikingly lifelike, even in mono. I have one great record, a 78 rpm disc, Easy Listening, Volume 2, W.J. "Red" Dougherty and his band.
The most effective way of unearthing Audiophile records is to place wants in jazz record collector journals. Records obtained this way are usually in excellent condition (record auction lists always give condition), because they were for the most part owned by jazz buffs or audiophiles. The records are not always easily identified as stereo. Some jackets give no hint of this; sometimes neither do the record labels themselves. At the end of this article is a list of records that are (usually) in stereo. The discs may be in red vinyl or black. In the early Sixties Nunn did switch to black vinyl which he considered to be superior because of better inner-groove hardness. He remastered a number of issues with more modern equipment, and these were then pressed in black. The surfaces and sound quality on both are equally excellent.
One album still in print that you may wish to purchase is a very special one. The recording was made by Nunn toward the end of his life and released after his death: A Midsummer Night's Dream (dedicated to E.D. Nunn) The music is by the New Black Eagles jazz band, from the Boston area. The recording was made in the auditorium of Fontbonne College, St. Louis, Missouri, July 9-10, 1975. Nunn made this recording with multiple microphones. The result is a soundstage presentation rather more forward and with less room acoustic than on his older two-microphone/two-track recordings. The recording is excellent, nonetheless, and Nunn was proud of it.
By this time Nunn was quite ill. "But he never wanted anyone to know," Frieda Nunn says. "And that was too bad. There were people - friends - who would have wanted to see him before he died. But he was a private person about such things, and wouldn't want much about his illness and death to be made public, even today."
Though he was in a wheelchair, he was still hard at work in July 1977, "I drove him to his last session," Mrs. Nunn says, "he was recording Jim Cullum's band, he'd recorded them for ten years or more. That was either for Happy Jazz label or maybe American Music, I don't remember which. Afterwards, he said it was 'an ok job'. Nothing was ever quite right for him, you know. But Jim Cullum was quite pleased. It was a good job." On July 24, Nunn died at home.
All of his friends and colleagues, writing or talking about him for this article, remember him with affection. "He was an interesting man to talk with," David Howse of Ardmore wrote. "The most beautiful thing about our relationship was the fact that we were not in competition with each other." Somewhat less reverently, but with genuine feeling, Bob Koester, Chicago jazz man from way back, said, "I loved the old fart. I'll be happy to see a piece on him."
Would Nunn have liked an article on himself? "Yes," said Frieda Nunn. "He'd have been tickled, though he'd never have let on. Oh, he'd have sputtered like nobody's business. He was like that."
He was an interesting man," she said after a bit. "He had a great many ideas and he carried them out. Some of them worked out beautifully."
1 Al C. Webber, “In Memoriam Ewing D. Nunn - 1900-1977,” from the album The New Black Eagles Jazz Band, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
2 Fred Reynolds, “Nunn But the finest,” Music at Home, November-December 1954, p. 25.
4 Album notes, Easy Listening, Vol. 2 Audiophile AP-13.
6 Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound (rgh).
Audiophile records either are numbered with the prefix XL or AP. XL denotes a 33 1/3 rpm record originally mastered at 78 rpm. AP denotes all other issues, from the earliest, Audiophile AP-1, with Harry Blons's band (that record must be worth a fortune), to AP-115/116. Determining if the record is stereo is not that simple. Audiophile's first stereo record was AP-56 (Muskrat Ramble, one of Audiophile's finest stereo recordings, with Doc Evans, Knocky Parker, et al.), but only perhaps half of the recordings between AP-56 and AP-115/116 are in stereo.
Here are some Audiophile numbers that are (probably) all in stereo: AP-56, AP-57, AP-59, AP-63, AP-66, AP-69, AP-75, AP-80, AP-82, AP-83, AP-84, AP-85, AP-86, AP-88 to AP-94, AP-97, AP-100 to AP-115/116.
I wish to thank the following people for their help on this article: Frieda Nunn, Professor John w. "Knocky" Parker, Ewing D. Nunn, Jr., Al C. Webber, David Howse, Don Gibson, John Steiner, Bob Koester, Robert Thompson, Art Kay, and Ralph Jungheim.
Reprinted by permission from The Absolute Sound, Volume 9, Number 35, Autumn 1985, pp. 95--101.
Larry Forbes is a retired Los Angeles advertising man who has a lifelong interest in high fidelity music systems and traditional Jazz.
(The following material is taken from the liner notes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, album BE-THREE, by the New Black Eagle Jazz Band from the Boston area. This record cover also includes several wonderful photos of Ewing and Frieda Nunn.)
IN MEMORIAM EWING D. NUNN, 1900-1977
(by Al Webber)
E.D. Nunn died July 24, 1977, at his home in San Antonio, Texas. He had been ill for a long time, a fact which he concealed from his friends with the same skill and single-mindedness which he exhibited whenever he recorded musicians.
Typically, he was hard at work up to the day of his death, in the field in which he had carved out unchallenged preeminence: sound recording.
To jazz collectors, E.D.N. is best known as the founder, in 1947, of Audiophile Records, Inc. Between 1947 and 1969, when he sold the label to the Cullums of Happy Jazz Band fame, he produced nearly 100 records, most of them traditional jazz and all of them superbly recorded.
The roster of jazz musicians recorded by E.D.N., for his own or other labels, is a long one. It includes Don Ewell, Albert Nicholas, Earl Hines, Doc Evans, Red Nichols, Knocky Parker, Raymond Burke, and Art Hodes, to name but a few at random.
Though he was probably the finest recording engineer the field has known, E.D.N. made records chiefly as a hobby. An amateur in the French meaning of the word, “one who loves,” Ewing delighted in demonstrating to dullards like the writer what true “high fidelity” really sounds like – playing records and tapes he had made with microphones and other equipment which he had either designed or had rebuilt to extract truer sound quality than the manufacturers realized it was capable of.
Though he would have called mad anyone who dared label him thus, Ewing was probably that rarity, an honest-to-goodness genius. In 1911, aged 10, he already was dabbling in the infant field of radio. Three years later, he built and operated an amateur radio station in Milwaukee and obtained his first transmitting license.
Ewing didn’t go to college. Nor did he need to. At 23, he was vice president of a radio parts manufacturing company, then at 36 founded an electrical firm, The Northern Signal company, which he headed until he retired in 1965.
To E.D.N., “retirement” simply meant having more time to devote to what he enjoyed most, recording traditional jazz. In between recording sessions, he found time to write a memorable article on a squirrel-proof bird feeder printed in the New York Times, design and market a unique hummingbird feeder, and photograph fauna ranging from chipmunks to tarantulas.
Ewing never wearied of touting the merits of the Dale Carnegie course. But his professed admiration for salesmanship didn’t deter him from writing a hilarious “sales” booklet which must have cost him thousands of potential Audiophile Record buyers among the more humorless strata of music lovers.
Who wouldn’t be at least mildly disturbed to read: “This recording was made in sterno. Only sterno captures the true beauty of the music as it ricochets around the room. A recording made in sterno enables the listener to hear with both ears; people have found that listening with only one ear requires a lot of practice and is, therefore, quite tiring…”
Jazz critic George Kay and I took turns badgering Ewing to write for publication, but apart from his single foray in the Times he confined his writing to the outrageously funny letters hoarded and treasured by his many friends. More’s the pity. He had the makings of a musical H.L. Mencken. A diatribe from Ewing was worth a dozen complements from any other source.
(This article by Fred Reynolds appeared in the November-December 1954 issue of Music At Home, page 25.)
NUNN BUT THE FINEST
Making Records of Superlative Quality Was Only a Hobby Until People Offered
Any Price “If You’ll Just Make an Extra Copy for Me” – By Fred Reynolds
Nothing could be more music-at-home than Ewing D. Nunn of Milwaukee and Saukville, Wisconsin. To prove this elementary statement of fact, you have only to stop off at his very pleasant home, as I did not so very long ago.
However, let’s set down the facts in some kind of order. Farmers know Nunn because he is president of the Northern Signal Company, producers of electric fence controllers, and controls for infra-red brooding equipment. Audio fans know him because of his superb Audiophile records, probably the finest of the high-quality recordings made today. Northern Signal is his bread and butter; Audiophile Records is a hobby, but it is beginning to grow to the proportions of a serious business.
You meet Ed Nunn and immediately you like him. He’s cordial, enthusiastic on a variety of subjects, and you know there are many topics on which this man speaks with authority. He’s a gentleman. Guessing, I’d say he has recently passed the half-century mark, but right now he looks ready to step in as half-back for the Green Bay Packers. And if you happened to meet him walking along the street, you might size him up as, say, the perfect model for Dean of Men at the University of Wisconsin. He and Mrs. Nunn have three children, all of whom are married. When the whole gang gets together, there are six grandchildren, too.
Born in Texas, it seems that Nunn has had an interest in electrical gadgets since he was old enough to read about Franklin, Edison, and Marconi. He didn’t go to college, but by 1916 he had his operator’s license, and his own radio business in 1921. He sold this out in 1931 to join Harley-Davidson, where he designed the first motorcycle radio receivers for police departments. He began his huge record collection back in 1920, the year before Enrico Caruso died and Arturo Toscanini cut his first disc for RCA Victor. It is this avid interest in recorded music that led him to making a few high-quality recordings for himself and, later, additional pressings for a few friends who had audio installations capable of doing justice to his records.
For years Nunn had been experimenting with amplifiers of his own design. He is continually improving his equipment, always moving ahead slowly and patiently, for he is well aware of the truism that “improvement is made in short jumps.” By 1947, he had advanced the performance of his equipment to the point that he wanted finer records to use with it than were commercially available. That was when he determined to make his own records. The kids had grown up and left home. There was much more time, therefore, to experiment with a hobby that might and did become expensive, as so many do, but there was a possibility that it might show a profit eventually, as so many don’t.
By the time he was ready to make his first recordings, he had arrived at certain specific decisions. Lacking the kind of studio facilities at home that he wanted, he made plans to record on location. For making master tapes, he chose a Magnecord M-80, and had it modified at the factory of 15 and 30 ips tape speed.1 He rebuilt the amplifier in this recorder himself. He uses a single microphone – a converted Stevens type – for all recording sessions. And he determined to cut all his records at 78 rpm, except in the case of musical selections, primarily classical, which require the longer playing time available only at 33 rpm. The Nunn opinion: “The best quality that can be engraved on a disc, regardless of cost, is obtained when a record is rotated at 78 rpm and is played with a 1-mil diamond stylus. Since top quality is our objective, Audiophile records are made in this way for use by those whose facilities enable them to be discriminating.”
Nunn’s 78 rpm records are not limited to the playing time of commercial pressings, however. The use of a 1-mil stylus makes it possible to cut the masters at a finer pitch. As a result, 12-in. Audiophile 78’s give up to 191/4 minutes of music.
Of course, before this project could be launched, Mrs. Nunn had give her consent – which she did quite readily. In fact, she loves the whole business, and manages to go along with her husband on most of his recording dates. She’s a grand help, too. A charming woman with a keen ear, she has now become the No. 1 girl in charge of microphones.
Nunn made his first recording in December of 1950 at Mendota, Minnesota – a Dixieland jazz session by Harry Blons and his band. (Nunn is most partial to Dixieland.) Besides a group of standard Dixieland exercises, the band did “Pop Goes the Weasel”, on which drummer Warren Thewis created a kind of cacophony using a number of gadgets grouped together under the single title of “machinery”. Nunn says, “This cacophony is excellent test material for playback equipment – it should all come through with sharp definition.”
I’m sure Mr. And Mrs. Nunn didn’t celebrate the occasion of the first Audiophile record by breaking a bottle of pop over its smooth edges, for they were probably much too busy. Even now that it is 1954, when the Nunns are shipping a substantial number of records each month, the entire business is still looked upon as a music-at-home hobby. In addition to a small and compact but very complete workshop in the basement of his home, Nunn has a much larger stock room that is jammed with boxes of all shapes and Audiophile records.
All Audiophile master records are cut on Nunn’s own special equipment, using a Presto lathe which he rebuilt. Audiophile records, of pure vinylite, colored with a grainless red dye, are pressed by a small independent concern because this concern happens to be the only one able and willing to meet Nunn’s exacting specifications. Every Audiophile record is guaranteed to perform as represented. And that, my friends, is something in this day when the term “high fidelity” has degenerated into a virtually meaningless description.
Sitting around on any afternoon of the week with Nunn in his home listening to records is a rather marvelous experience. He has a flock of fascinating stories to tell about his experiences at recording sessions, and a large quantity of wonderful stuff on tape that has to be described as enormously un-commercial. In fact, it is so un-commercial that I’m having a terrible time convincing him to put some of it on records. His record collection (78’s) is fabulous indeed, and choice, and he can pull out whatever he’s talking about at the drop of a name. And best of all, you listen to all this on equipment so fine it makes you wish he’ ask you to move in with him.
His speaker installation, for example, is a Bozak 310B, comprised of 4 woofers, 1 midrange speaker, and 8 tweeters. The low frequency response successfully reproduces fundamentals at 30 cycles. Of course, this isn’t enough. His new speaker – that’s the one that’s going in the new home he’s building around it – will be 40% larger in cubic contents, and will incorporate 15 units. The new home, by the way, will be complete with a control room studio, and will be far enough away from railroad tracks so that no trains will roar by when he’s outside recording a thunderstorm.
You will understand this reference if you have read the catalog description of record AP-20, about which he wrote: “For years, we have wanted to record a rip-roaring, red-blooded thunderstorm…Milwaukee had never been blessed with such a satisfactory thunderstorm as occurred one evening in June, 1952. It was sheer good fortune that we were able to set up our equipment quickly in a favorable location. Over one hour of the storm was recorded. This maze of material was subsequently condensed and edited in order to present it to you on a disc. Most fortuitous was the arrival of a train right in the midst of everything – it sounds just as though it were coming right into the room.” What charms me is the transition, at the end of the record, from the earth-shaking thunder to the peaceful night scene created by the croaking sounds from a frog-pond, punctuated by an occasional, deliberative “glunk,” as some over-size bull frog twangs his G-string. If you haven’t heard it, you really must!
Reading the catalog comments on Audiophile records, you get the impression that Nunn gets a tremendous lot of enjoyment from the music he records. It would be hard to imagine his recording anything that he wasn’t really excited about, just as you can be certain that he would never put out a new release unless he was certain that it would please audio enthusiasts whose tastes are as highly critical as his – and he is very critical indeed.
He even goes to the unprecedented extreme of identifying his 78’s as Grade A, and his 33’s as Grade B. In some cases, he specifies the pickups he considers necessary for the best reproduction.
Nunn has some observations that may be interesting to audiophiles. I’m sure he has others, but we were so busy listening to records that I just didn’t get around to asking him all the questions that came to my mind. Once started on records, it’s really impossible switching this man to other thoughts. Like these…..
“…Audiophile records provide high-quality reproduction only when they are played on high-quality equipment. They are only the beginning, not the end.
“ you can’t possibly know how good your equipment is until you have the necessary equipment to test it. Unfortunately, the testing equipment is usually more expensive than the various units you’re testing.” (I meant to insert something in here about knowing how to make and interpret the tests. Somehow that seemed awfully complicated, but most essential to high-quality recording.)
…Far too many records advertised as “high fidelity” are not “high fidelity” in any sense of the word. This not only hurts the manufacturers, but it misleads people, too. I’m afraid the record industry has acquired some aspects of Coney Island pitchmen.”
See what I mean? An evening with this man Nunn is a most stimulating experience!
1 Mr. Nunn makes all his master tapes at 30 ips in order to reduce intermodulation distortion. This, he admits, may not be warranted as a commercial practice, but it is one of a series of refinements he employs because his aim is to achieve the highest degree of quality, regardless of cost.
The above article contains a number of photographs. I am unable to reproduce them, but here are the captions:
Mrs. Nunn shares her husband’s enthusiasm for the hobby that wasn’t intended to make a profit, but has, nevertheless, through the sheer excellence of the records they produce under the Audiophile label for “those whose physical and technical equipment enable them to be discriminating”
Last September, Ed Nunn recorded the Red Dougherty Sextet at the Calhoun Beach Hotel, Minneapolis. Records are scheduled for release in December.
This part of the Nunn collection is devoted largely to old-time traditional American music played by Morton, Armstrong, Williams, and Oliver.
Décor of the Nunn living room combines a … collection, oriental rugs, grand piano, tape recorder, and lathe for cutting master records.
Making tapes and cutting master records may be a hobby with Ed Nunn, but there is nothing amateurish about his facilities, methods, or products. In fact, he has a distinct advantage over the engineers in commercial studios in that he can take as much time as he needs to achieve the results he seeks. If the test pressings fail to please him, it’s his responsibility. He simply destroys the master, and makes plans for the next recording session. Nor does he have to be satisfied with standard equipment. He has rebuilt some of what he uses. The rest he developed and built himself. This photograph shows one corner of his laboratory.
Closeup of the cutting equipment shown at the top of this page. Here is a rebuilt lathe, with a preamp, control box, and vacuum-tube voltmeter of Nunn’s own design.
My Thoughts on Ewing Nunn’s Contribution to the Audio Art
Ewing D. Nunn was the heir to the Nunn-Bush shoe family. He is one of the unsung heroes of the development of improved sound reproduction. I can find only one reference to E.D. Nunn on the Internet. (This reference suggests that he had truly exceptional hearing.) This is in contrast to the many references to names such as Klipsch, Bozak, McIntosh, etc. Hence this web page.
What were Nunn’s contributions to the audio art? As I see it, they were twofold. From the start of his activities in 1947, he purchased the best available tape recorders and microphones. He then improved on them even further, making use of his well-known expertise in the area of electronics. For this reason, his tapes exhibit wide frequency response and low noise that make them remarkable even by today’s standards. Some of E.D. Nunn’s memorable Audiophile recordings of Doc Evans and others are now available on Compact Disc, transferred directly from the original master tapes.
In addition, E.D. Nunn did many things to insure that the high quality of his tapes was transferred to the records he made. He acquired and developed the best possible electronics, record cutting lathes and other equipment for his record making business. His signature virgin clear red vinyl records had the lowest possible surface noise. During the early part of his career as a record manufacturer, he made 78 rpm microgroove records to achieve the highest possible fidelity. As the record making art evolved, he went to 33 1/3 rpm and then to stereo, but his unique monophonic 78 rpm red vinyl microgroove records from the early 50s stand as a lasting tribute to his desire to achieve uncompromised sound quality.
E.D. Nunn’s genius was not confined to technical areas. He also had an uncanny instinct for Artists and Repertoire. His organ recordings were made by Robert Noehren. And he used musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The ongoing interest in his work stems primarily from his recordings of traditional jazz, and of Doc Evans in particular. But classical music fans will take one look at the classical releases on his label and recognize immediately that he had a great love of classical music as well.
Ewing D. Nunn started the Audiophile label in 1947, in Mequon, Wisconsin. He moved to Saukville, Wisconsin about 1950. He sold the Audiophile label to Jim Cullum, Sr. in 1969, but stayed on for a while as recording engineer. Jim Cullum, Jr. took over the label in 1973 and used the Audiophile label to produce several records of his own band, and of Knocky Parker. Jim Cullum, Jr. sold the Audiophile label in the mid 1970s. Ewing and Frieda Nunn moved to San Antonio in 1972, where he died in 1977. Frieda Nunn died in 2000.