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FEATURE ARTICLE

APRIL, 2000

WILL THE REAL BOB DENNIS PLEASE STAND UP

INTERVIEW + PHOTOS BY PT QUINN

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BOB DENNIS, SEATED AT THE SSL CONSOLE IN THE DISC STUDIO A

I’d heard about the man over 20 years ago when me and my musician friends came of age.  Us local Detroit guys had grown up listening to the amazing Motown music that came out of Hitsville U.S.A. down on West Grand Blvd past the the former General Motors building.  All that cool music like Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Supremes, Temptations, the Parlament... the list goes on and on.  Just about anybody who was serious about playing music and recording in the local Detroit scene had heard about the legend, the teacher, the writer, and recording engineer Bob Dennis.   A guy who had worked for Motown as an engineer.    That studio of greatness and maker of timeless beauty.  Much of what was produced there will sound just as fresh far into the future as it was in its heyday and now.  It’s in the music and the mix baby.  Bob would master greatness on the disk lathe,  the master mold to which vinyl records were made. 45s and 33s were the norm in the early sixties, and my older sister had every Motown 45 ever made.   Stacks and stacks of 45 rpm records with the big hole in the middle.  You could pile up a whole bunch on the typical teenagers record player.  We Motor city baby boomers loved our local heros who made the international scene with their wonderful music and Bob was there! - in the mix, working the pallete of sonic energy.  He told me recently that music was like a painting and all the sound was color and balance.   An important complement to the music is the record.
Bob was born in Detroit 54 years ago and raised by his engineering illustrator mother and grandmother on Detroit’s east side.   His father left when he was just a toddler, and Bob has only seen him perhaps only a half dozen times since.  Young Bob went to Cass Technical School where he was enrolled in their electronics program paving the way for his future career in music production.  He married as a young man to his high school sweetheart Anita and started a family. The result of that union produced 5 children. The couple's first child Marthanna died tragically at the age of 5 of meningitis.  His second daughter Teresa currently works with the business end of his empire as does second son Daniel.  First son Robert is employed in the automotive industry .  Bob’s last son is named Robb.  He takes pride in mentioning that all his children were born 2 years apart so it’s easy to remember their ages.  Former wife Anita is now deceased and Bob is a single man.  Bob’s first job at Motown as an electronics technician began the day after he and Anita were married.  Bob was only 17!  By the time he turned 18, he was made mastering engineer.  Not a bad start for a green kid.  He ended up being involved in 37 gold records with Motown working with the likes of legendary songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland who themselves penned dozens of top ten hits. 
The recording complex he built in Eastpoint Michigan has 3 recording suites, a recording engineering school, and 2 e-magazines.  Affectionally called "The Disc" or "Superdisc", it’s really The Disc Ltd and The Recording Institute of Detroit.  When I caught up with Bob for this interview, he was at the Disc working with his latest discovery of a young band called Giftvs (pronounced Gift-us).  Check their website at http://www.giftvs.com.   Even though Bob is semi retired, he still is at the Disc 5 days a week.  The first thing I noticed is that young musicians and students satellite around him. Drawn to the master, the creator of dreams.  After giving me a tour of the facilities, we settled down in his office for this interview.  He was very candid in what he had to say. Here it is.......
PT Quinn:  What sparked your interest in becoming a recording engineer? Bob Dennis: Basically electronics and goofing around with a friend who was also into it.  We made our first record when I was in junior high school at my friend's house.  I tried broadcasting and didn’t like it at all.  I played music for 5 years.  What instrument?   The trumpet.  Recording really appealed to me because it melds music with electronics.
PT: How did the Disc come about?   Bob:  Well, I worked for Motown for 5 years and got frustrated because they gave me a job as mastering and quality control supervisor, and didn’t want me hanging out at the studio, even on my own time.    So I left them and worked with the production writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland that made the original Supremes’ hits in the ‘63 to ‘65 period.  They captured about 71/2 % of the singles market at the time.   They’re second as a songwriting team only to Lennon and McCartney.    Songs like "Where did our Love go", "Baby Love", "Stop in the name of Love" and others.  I think they had 50 different songs go gold.  I helped them set up a recording studio and got into areas I hadn’t been in before.  I actually became a recording engineer when I worked for them.   I started this company called "Superdisc" in 1974.  At the time we were in a downslide in the economy.  There were recording engineers who were driving taxicabs and other kinds of things to make money.  I wanted to stay in the business.   So I got the opportunity from the Holland’s to use their facility and start my own recording services company there after they went out of business.  Later on we moved over here into our current location. It’s our 25th year here.

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There were recording engineers who were driving taxicabs and other kinds of things to make money. I wanted to stay in the business.

PT:   Who are some of the well known bands you worked with?  Bob:   Some of the more talented guys like (drummer) Muruga.  I’ve done a lot of recording for George Clinton.  I produced and co-wrote a song for the "P-Funk Allstars."  I was in charge of all of George’s recording at the time.  I didn’t get behind the board as much but did a lot of out of town sessions and stuff. [I worked with] A lot of new artists who needed direction more then just a recording engineer. I’ve recorded "The Four Tops";  I’ve mastered for Bob Seger;  It’s hard to mention them all.  I did mastering for a lot of Motown acts earlier - acts like "The Temptations", Mary Wells", "The Supremes", "The Contours" and the like.  Lots of other stuff what have you.  In my own studio I like to get into projects with new artists.  I’ve worked with artists who didn’t make it like the other ones who were well established.  I do have engineering credits on 37 gold records. Most of that was pre-heavy metal days.

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I consider myself first a writer, second a teacher and 3rd a recording engineer & producer

PT:  How did you come to start The Recording Institute of Detroit? Bob:  It was in 1975. There was a company out of New York called The Recording Institiute of America. They were installing schools throughout the country in a network, and we had the opportunity to be instructors for them.  It was at the time 50 bucks a week extra I could put into my family. They don’t exist any more.  The states wanted them to be licensed, and they didn’t want to set up shops in each of the states.  The outgrowth of the school came from me working for the RIA.  I turned Superdisc into a school and got it licensed.  What got me interested in teaching was my desire to become a writer.   When I was in grade school I would try to write poetry and short stories.  I wasn’t very good.  I remember sitting down for an Alice Cooper thing and tried to rewrite a couple of his songs.  It was a laborious thing.  Something creative opened up in me.  I wrote something like 30 songs in a week.  I’ve been writing ever since.  I had written technical manuals for employee training, but I started writing songs and recording them.  I consider myself first a writer, second a teacher, and third a producer and recording engineer.
PT:  Tell us something about recordingeq.com  Bob:  It started out as a magazine called "Engineer Quarterly."  It had articles written by me and other staff members.  It was a promotional tool.  It was a free magazine that was distributed to about 35 music stores.  The magazine blossomed where it became a monthly.  It got to be about 25 or 30 pages long.  Then it diminished down to be a quarterly again.  Three years ago I became interested in the web more from the viewpoint of surfing the web.  Two years ago I started the online magazine and decided not to print anymore of these things, just put it online and I’ve been loving it ever since.
PT:  What about Alexander Magazine? Bob: Recordingeq.com is a freebie on the web. Alexander was established for training over the web, a subscription magazine. Obviously it’s not the same as being behind a recording console, but you can tell them a lot of stuff.  One thing I noticed over the years is that while hands on training is critical to somebody being able to do something, but if the student doesn’t have enough knowledge about the workings of the system before they put their hands on it, they really don’t walk away with any kind of authority. They may go to a different console at another studio and maybe not even know how to operate the thing.  There has to be a balance between information about something and the hands on application.  The idea behind Alexander is to give the student the theory of recording.  It comes from the viewpoint of instructon from a structured course through the intermediate to the advanced levels.  I’ve written 10 textbooks on recording, 3300 pages including a complete audio dictionary.  On the web I began writing some interactive stuff and was very happy with it, but people were not very enthused and I found out why....the mentality of someone going to the web is they’re stuck.  They want to know something about a specific area. They want basic and advanced immediate information.  Everything about bam ! - plus all the other stuff.  They’ll eventually get to all the other stuff of course.  I structured this in a magazine format so a student can follow the chain all the up to the advanced level.  Also we have general study modules and textbooks online so people can design their own study on the web.  At this point we have about 650 pages of text on there and we’ve got 3000 more pages to go.

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I’ve written 10 textbooks on recording, 3300 pages including a complete audio dictionary.

PT:  So you have subscribers from around the world?  Bob:  From every country imaginable.  Some I have not even heard of.  We’ve got Norway, Spain, Russia, Mexico, even China and India.
PT:  You’re backing the Waterford (Michigan) hard rock band Giftvs.  What’s so special about them that impresses you?  Bob:  Well, they’re extremely talented.  They’re hard workers and particularly the lead singer Jeremy Lafferty who spurs most of the songs.  He loves to showoff and I think that’s pretty good for a stage personality.  In the CD that we just released, the songs were arranged in the order of which they were written.  The first song Jeremy wrote when he was 15 !   The band has got to have almost 500 songs.  When you have been in the industry as long as I have, you now the vast majority of the success is the songs.  You can have a group with only 10 or 15 songs for a CD, and maybe get one that is a hit record.   But the question is can that band come up with a follow up? Many are one hit wonders.  The first thing that attracted me to the band was the depth of their writting.  I heard a lot of their music before I approached them to work with.   Performance wise they’re just great.  Anything goes on a performance, and they really get the crowd going.  To top it all off..they look great.  This coming from guys under 21.  They have a long time to establish themselves and hopefully ride the crest of stardom.
PT:  If you could change something about yourself what would it be?  Bob:  That’s a very good question.  Maybe getting into some better habits.  Things like keeping the weight down, not smoking, and things of that nature.  Maybe being more responsible about things.  Maybe my organizational skills.  I see a direct conflict between that and creativity.  I came to the conclusion that I’m more creative than business like. (Ha Ha!)

Copyright 2000, by PT Quinn, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Published in Recording Engineer's Quarterly with author permission

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