Obituary: Bob Auger

Lewis Foreman
Thursday 04 February 1999 01:02

IN THE modern recording industry the team divides into the producer, who deals with the performance, and the engineer, who deals with the microphone rig, the recording equipment and its operation, and the venue or studio. Bob Auger was one of the leading British recording engineers and a notable pioneer, both as a freelance, and for the practical application of successive technical developments, including stereo and digital recording. He leaves a distinguished portfolio of several thousand recordings, assessed by one colleague as "most of the interesting recordings from that period".

Auger's father was a sergeant-major in the Army, whose successive postings caused constant family upheavals. Auger was born in St John's Wood Barracks, in London, and lived in India as an infant, where he caught malaria, which resulted in his education being repeatedly interrupted. He left school at 14, and to please his father's ambition for him to have a job with a pension became a booking clerk at Stoke-on-Trent railway station, a career ended at Head Office, Euston, when at the age of 28 he left to take an apprenticeship at Bryanston Street Studios. From there he soon moved on to the Pye record company as an engineer.

As a child Auger had started collecting 78s, thus becoming, despite his lack of formal musical training, very knowledgeable of both music and recordings. His growing technical knowledge was reinforced by evening classes. He soon encountered the American record engineer Bob Fine, the architect of Mercury Records. Assisting Fine was an inspiring apprenticeship, and Auger's first recording with him was Barbirolli's recording of Vaughan Williams's Eighth Symphony in 1956. Barbirolli was the first big name Auger worked for and they struck up a warm friendship.

Mercury's reputation was built on their celebrated "single microphone" technique which claimed authentic reproduction of what was actually played, leaving the conductor to decide dynamics and balance. Auger became well known for developing the multi-microphone recording familiar to the modern industry.

Pye was an innovative company in both repertoire and technical developments, particularly of stereo, of which Auger became a notable pioneer. He made his name with a wider audience when working with the the conductor Charles Mackerras. In April 1959 they recorded Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks using a very large wind ensemble, soon adding the Sinfonietta and opera preludes by Jancek.

From 1960 to 1962 Auger was the Chief Engineer of Granada TV in Manchester, subsequently returning to Pye as Technical Manager. He was the raison d'etre for setting up Granada Recordings, which he ran from 1969 to 1974. During this time he supported the recording requirements of a wide range of leading companies, including RCA, CBS and Vanguard, and in 1974 became fully freelance. The RCA connection had begun prior to Granada, for RCA had contracted Pye to make recordings for them in the UK, and such was Auger's burgeoning reputation, the work followed him.

A pioneering client was John Goldsmith of the newly established Unicorn Records, for whom he made some 130 records. Their first was Nielsen's Fifth Symphony conducted by Jascha Horenstein. Here Auger's legendary inventiveness and unflappability became apparent when, having trouble getting the fade-down of the side-drum solo, they put Alf Dukes, the side- drum player, in the lobby and slowly closed the door on him while recording. On another occasion the gentlemen's toilet was found a perfect acoustic for John the Baptist's cell in Richard Strauss's Salome. One of his best recordings for Unicorn is widely regarded as Horenstein's Mahler Third, reputedly the first commercial multi-track Dolby A recording on one-inch tape. Later, a pioneer of digital recording, Gliere's expansive Third Symphony, was among the first such recordings by an independent company.

Possibly the company with whom Augur made most records was another independent label, CRD, for whom he covered a very wide spectrum of music including the debut recordings of Trevor Pinnock and the Chilingirian String Quartet.

Other artists included Pierre Boulez, the film composer and conductor Bernard Herrmann, Leopold Stokowski, the sopranos Beverly Sills and Cathy Berberian, the composer and pianist John McCabe with whom he made some 16 piano recordings, and Erich Leinsdorf with whom he recorded Salome for RCA. Perhaps above all was Leonard Bernstein, whose 1970 Albert Hall Verdi Requiem, with Placido Domingo, Auger thought one of his major achievements, though he was very upset at the time that the issued recording was remixed after the tape left him.

Apart from specific recordings, Auger's overriding achievement was in demonstrating that an independent engineer could be viable, indeed could lead the field, so that major companies and the world's leading artists would seek to employ him. He worked, too, as sound engineer on a number of high-profile public occasions both in the pop and classical fields. These included as varied events as the 1969 Isle of Wight Pop Festival, the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, Frank Sinatra's charity concert at the Festival Hall and Karlheinz Stockhausen's concert in the same hall in the mid-1970s, the latter with its extensive requirement for electronic sound, when the mixing desk was ostentatiously located in mid-stalls.

While working for Pye Auger was responsible for many pop sessions; artists with whom he had hits included Ray Davies and the Kinks ("You Really Got Me", 1964; "Sunny Afternoon", 1966), The Animals ("House of the Rising Sun", 1964) and Steve Winward and the Spencer Davis Group ("Keep on Running", 1966). He also recorded Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jnr, Marlene Dietrich at her last appearance in London, Bing Crosby, and Buddy Rich at Ronny Scott's for RCA.

Invariably on location he easily adapted to local, often Spartan, conditions, in halls and churches not designed for recording. On several occasions he worked through the night to avoid daytime distractions.

Remembering his own beginnings, he was always very kind to aspiring engineers and several proteges were helped into the profession by him. Although nominally retired, he was still working for Opera Rara, whose entire catalogue he had recorded, when he died unexpectedly in his sleep.

Robert Walter Ernest Auger, recording engineer: born London 30 April 1928; married 1964 Monika Beilfuss (one son, one daughter); died Swansea 12 December 1998.

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