United Sound, Detroit Michigan

United Sound Systems Recording Studios is located in Detroit, Michigan and was founded by James Siracuse in the 1930s and has been in it's current location, 5840 Second Avenue, since the early 1940s. Being one of the world's first independent recording studios United Sound has a wonderfully rich history. Siracuse opened the business primarily to create radio advertisements for the auto industry. Advertising agencies were springing up all around Detroit and Siracuse seeing a void began offering high quality recording services. But I am sure Siracuse also recognized the unique music industry that was starting to grow in America's richest city.

United Sound Systems circa 2008

United sound

Making Music History

The first significant music history that was made at United Sound came on December 21st 1947. It is this date that TQM Recording Co. has recreated with five wonderful Detroit musicians that we now call the Detroit Bop Quintet.

This 1947 recording date was significant for many reasons. It was most likely the first nationally famous recording artist to record at United Sound and not only was the artist famous, he was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

Charlie Parker and his Quintet were in Detroit performing as a group by themselves and backing Sarah Vaughn at the El Sino Club. It was a fourteen day stretch that began on December 19th 1947 and ended on January 1st 1948. What brought Charlie Parker to Detroit in the dead of winter was a bit of a return engagement. I'm sure that if Parker had his way he would have been anywhere else other than Detroit but when a prior engagement at the El Sino went horribly wrong, Parker was obliged to play. The story goes that Parker's previous visit to Detroit did not go so well, his vices got the better of him and he was not able to perform as planned. This December visit was making good on his promise to the El Sino. From what has been gathered in local Detroit folklore Parker was at his peak while performing over these fourteen days. His Quintet was made up of some pretty heavy players; a very young Miles Davis on trumpet, Max Roach on Drums, Tommy Potter on Bass and Duke Jordan on Piano.

At this time in music history recording sessions were generally reserved for cities like New York and Chicago. So, why then would producer Teddy Reig choose to record in the then unproven city of Detroit. The answer lies in the fact that the musicians union were about to enforce a recording ban. On January 1st 1948 the union would enact and enforce a ban on all commercial recording activities. It was a strike by the union against the recording companies in an effort to improve the pay musicians would receive for their work. With the recording ban only ten days away Savoy Records asked Reig to get Parker and his band in to the nearest studio to record a few sides.

What Reig, Parker and his bandmates found when they entered United Sound on the morning of December 21st 1947 was one of the most sophisticated recording studios in the country. James Siricuse had built the studio on 2nd Avenue in Detroit. The building was a large two story home that Siricuse had converted to a recording studio. But this was not just a make shift studio thrown together in someone's basement or living room. The control room occupied what was once the front room and the recording space was in what might have been the dining room. Siracuse being a perfectionist built this studio to exacting standards and utilized some of the most advanced acoustic treatments of the time. Polycylindrical diffusers lined the walls and the room was tuned to acoustic perfection. The control room featured a state of the art mixer and acetate recorder and the microphone cabinet was stocked with RCA Ribbon microphones and the latest technologies from local Michigan microphone manufacturer Electro-Voice. United Sound was not some second rate studio in a backwater town. It was perhaps the best studio in the country and it was built like all things in 1940s Detroit, to last.

While the 1947 Charlie Parker session may be the first international music success story to come out of United Sound it was definitely not the last. In its first incarnation under the ownership of Jimmy Siracuse United Sound scored several international hits. Shortly after the 1947 Charlie Parker session local Detroiter John Lee Hooker arrived at United and recorded his debut smash "Boogie Chillen". In the early 1950's United Sound became the home to Dizzy Gillespie's Dee Gee Records and in 1952 Jackie Wilson started his long list of United Sound recorded hits with "Danny Boy". In 1958 a young Berry Gordy recorded the very first Motown sides at United Sound and then bought a house a few blocks away and converted it to a recording studio and when the hits kept coming Gordy used United Sound as his second recording home. In 1969 Isaac Hayes would come to United Sound's Studio A to record the orchestration for Hot Buttered Soul.

In 1971 guitarist and Motown producer Don Davis purchased United Sound from Jimmy Siracuse and the hits kept on coming. Hundreds of hit records were produced at United Sound under the helm of Davis. In the 1970's George Clinton and Funkadelic basically moved in calling Studio A their home for almost 20 years. The 1980's saw the recording of seminal records by The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Aretha Franklin.

By the mid 1990's United Sound Systems, like much of Detroit, fell in to disrepair and its doors were closed. But in recent times the studio has re-opened and with thanks to current owner Danielle Scott the doors have re-opened and a new era of hits are sure to slowly trickle from the studio.

Another Hair-Do Original Version

The Charlie Parker Session

In all, four sides were recorded that day at United Sound. The first two "Another Hair-Do" and "Bluebird" are simple blues and the melodies of the head were most likely written by Parker on the spot. Each of the songs feature incredible solos by Parker and Davis. The last two tunes are more akin to solos than they are to songs as we know them today. Both are performed over chord changes found in popular songs of the day with "Klaunstance" taking from "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Bird Gets The Worm" from "Lover Come Back To Me".

As was common in the 1940s very little documentation was taken during the recording session. Today studio session notes and detailed recall sheets are made of every piece of equipment used on almost every recording session. Every detail of even the most mundane recordings are kept as though the producers and engineers are creating history with each session. It seems that the musicians and producers of the 1940s didn't realize or care that they were making history.

At the time of TQM's recreation of this 1947 session both James Siracuse and his recording engineer son Joe had passed away. So, getting first hand knowledge of how the recording was made is next to impossible. Thankfully recording engineers share information amongst themselves and pass on wisdom from generation to generation like an oral history of an ancient civilization. And lucky for TQM Recording Co. that Detroit recording engineer extraordinaire Ed Wolfrum is still around to pass that information on us. Wolfrum started his recording career as a teenager working for local Detroit radio stations in the 1950s. He was a bit of a child prodigy when it came to electronics and easily found work at an early age. Wolfrum may be best known for his invention of the Direct Box. That little box that converts instrument level signals to microphone level signals had not yet been perfected when Wolfrum noticed the need and started selling his device to every recording studio and radio station in Detroit in the 1950s. It is this little invention then referred to as the "Wolfie Box" that is probably the most important ingredient to what we now call the "Detroit Sound" and provided the heavy bass tone of Funk Brother bass players James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt.

Ed Wolfrum worked at United Sound years after the Parker/Davis session of 1947 but he speaks of it as if he were there. Wolfrum remembers listening to a 15 IPS tape copy of the session in the early 1960s and fondly remembers talking to Jimmy and Joe about the recording. Wolfrum believes that it was Joe Siracuse that most likely engineered the session and says that Joe did the Jazz and Blues while his father Jimmy concentrated on the advertising work. This is an interesting insight and runs counter to commercial releases of the records that credit "Jim Siracusa" as engineer.

Wolfrum describes the studio as a beautifully designed space that was acoustically perfect. The musicians would have been set up in a circle looking at one another with the piano placed against the wall and the drums up on a small riser in the corner. The bass would be near the door and Parker and Davis would have been facing the drummer. All the musicians within 5 feet of each other all able to look directly at one another. A maximum of 6 microphones would have been used on the session but as few as four seems more likely. Intense listening to the session leaves the listener convinced that only one microphone was used for both horn players. You can hear the movement of the musicians in and out of the microphones pick up pattern for solos and melodic harmonies. On drums the most likely choice would have been an Astatic Dynamic Omni or an Altec M-11 "Coke Bottle" microphone. "No kick drum microphone was used in that era" explains Wolfrum. For bass the go to was the RCA 44-BX and the microphone would have been placed so that the null of the figure eight pattern would eliminate drum bleed. On piano was most likely the Altec 639 Dynamic-Ribbon "Bird Cage" microphone set on wide. And horns would have been dynamics, most likely an Electro-Voice 655 Omni dynamic or one of the many Electro-Voice prototypes that United Sound was given to test by Electro-Voice founder Lou Burroughs.

As TQM Recording Co. embarked on the journey of recreating this beautifully recorded session almost 70 years later Ed Wolfrum left us with this memory of how they worked at United Sound Systems in Detroit. "The first rule at United was make the musicians comfortable. We never used headphones on a rhythm date. Jimmy said it ruins the natural balance. The guys always faced one another for eye contact and feel and we never used baffles."