A tribute to Francis Dillnutt, EMI recording engineer

guest Tue 20th October 2015

Ken Townsend, MBE, former Head of Abbey Road Studios, remembers his colleague who died on August 22

'The trusted trio' in Rome, July 1961. Producer Victor Olof, engineers Francis Dillnutt (sat behind the mixing console) and Ken Townsend (standing).  

Francis Dillnutt, who has died at the age of 91, was one of the finest classical recording engineers of his generation. Following in the footsteps of his father, George Dillnutt, whose entire working life from 1899 onwards was spent with the Gramophone Company, Francis joined EMI at Hayes in August 1940 as a 16 year old. EMI had been created by the merger of the Gramophone Company and the Columbia Graphophone Company in 1931, whose record labels thereby included His Master Voice, Columbia, Parlophone and Regal Zonophone. Although volunteering for military service he was rejected after failing his medical so he remained at the factory until just after the Second World War when he moved to EMI Recording Studios in Abbey Road, St Johns Wood.

He soon established himself in the rapidly changing recording techniques from wax to tape and shellac to vinyl. I first met Francis in 1954 when as a design and development trainee in the research labs at Hayes I was transferred to Abbey Road, as they were in desperate need of technicians who understood the latest equipment. Learning his trade from the experience of Bob Beckett, Douggie Larter and Harold Davidson, he quickly demonstrated his ability and supreme confidence sitting behind the mixing console. When stereo slowly took over from mono we initially recorded simultaneously in both formats using two control rooms and separate microphone set-ups. Francis was at the forefront of recording the stereo version, although for a year the producer concentrated on mono, as very few households at that time owned stereo equipment. 

In those days the Classical Division undertook some of their most prestigious recordings abroad, particularly in Rome, Milan, Vienna and Paris. In January of each year the management selected staff for these important recordings and Francis and myself were invariably paired together. As a two man crew my first outing with him was in 1958 to the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna to record the VPO with a variety of conductors including Willi Boskovsky and Rudolf Kempe. It was quite a task for me to pack over 50 wooden crates with the relevant equipment ensuring nothing was left behind and doing a precise customs list, before it was shipped abroad. On arrival a couple of days were set aside for the two of us to assemble a control room and rig microphones, talkback and playback etc. in the Hall. One was extremely lucky if everything worked first time and a soldering iron was a necessary ingredient. Some of these ‘Recording Expeditions’ as they were still called lasted up to eight weeks and we were only allowed to phone home on safe arrival and again on departure. Once set up and ready our superb tape editor David Bell would arrive with his brass scissors together with HMV’s Chief Classical Producer Victor Olof and his assistants. As a team we all got on famously together and so immediately after Christmas the following year the same crew were off  again to Austria, with Sir Malcolm Sargent (alias Flash Harry) being one of several conductors.

HMV had signed a long-term contract to record in Rome at the Teatro del Opera during the middle of the summer when it was too hot for live performances. I did not go in 1960 for Madama Butterfly but from 1961 onwards I went with Francis on several occasions and among the many operas we recorded included La bohème, Andrea Chenier and Cavalleria Rusticana. The latter was unique in that the tenor Franco Corelli developed a sore throat and was unable to sing the duet, so, aided by my experience of pop techniques, we recorded the orchestra as a backing track and superimposed Franco and soprano Victoria de Los Angeles back in Studio One after we had returned home. On another occasion we flew to Spoleto in Italy to discuss with American Conductor Thomas Schippers the possibility of recording live at their local Festival. ‘Dilly’ as he was known learnt a splattering of both German and Italian, helpful not only in talking to the conductor, orchestra and choirs but also in the fine restaurants we frequented often with Victor, surely the most friendly and down-to-earth of classical record producers. I shall never forget when Mario Sereni took us all out for a fantastic Italian meal at the completion of one opera. Milan’s famous La Scala was used by us less frequently but in Paris we often recorded in the Salle Wagram, yet another fine venue where Francis plied his trade, recording artists such as Maria Callas, with whom he got on very well. 

He had obviously been earmarked to take over as Manager of Transfer Operations upon Horace Hack’s impending retirement, which at its peak had 22 post production rooms, including six disc cutting suites. Later on we added sophisticated digital remastering facilities. Bob Gooch, Neville Boyling and Chris Parker meanwhile carried on their excellent classical balance duties at both Abbey Road and Kingsway Hall which we shared with Decca, while younger engineers covered Berlin with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and new venues in the United States. 

When I was appointed manager of Abbey Road in 1974 he became one of my trusted lieutenants and in all the time I knew him we never had one major disagreement, despite spending in cumulative terms almost a year abroad together. This says much for his dedication, work ethic and sense of humour. In hindsight too we never received one iota of praise or even a penny extra for the personal sacrifices of being abroad for long periods. That was all part and parcel of doing a job which we thoroughly enjoyed. 

His hobbies included cricket where he played for his native Ealing, in their Sunday Nomads wandering team. Our friendship resulted in an annual mid-week fixture on the magnificent Ealing ground against my own beloved Wooburn Narkovians, and he also umpired for me in our matches at Wooburn with Pink Floyd. Yes, they didn’t just play guitars they played cricket, at least Dave, Roger and Rick did! He was a keen Brentford supporter whereas I followed Wycombe Wanderers, then a non-league outfit. Married for 64 years to Barbara he moved upon retirement to Norfolk where his golfing interest enabled him to zig zag round the local courses and make many good friends. Over the last few years his health deteriorated but the constant support he received from his wife has been absolutely fantastic. 

Thank you Francis. ‘Job well done.’ RIP. 

Born July 3, 1924; died August 22, 2015

 

 

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