An elite recording engineer, Don Hahn soothed Streisand, saved the day for the Band and helped Herb Alpert rise again. At legendary studios in New York and Los Angeles, he captured the sound of orchestras with aplomb, a craft he learned at the heels of legendary producer Phil Ramone. He worked on everything from Star Trek: The Next Generation to the star-studded session for We Are The World to a Pepsi commercial with Ray Charles, and sat behind the soundboard and mixing equipment for recordings by Duke Ellington, Shirley Bassey, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra and many more.
A stubborn perfectionist and skilled technician whose gruff demeanour failed to obscure a joyful soul, the Toronto-born Mr. Hahn died in Henderson, Nev., on Oct. 10. He was 81. As Mr. Hahn saw it, when it came to recording music there was his way and there was the wrong way. Certain situations, however, called for nimble ingenuity.
One day in early 1968, the members of nascent roots-rock quintet the Band arrived at New York’s famed A&R Studios to record their debut album, Music From Big Pink. Mr. Hahn and his second, Shelly Yakus, set up microphones and chairs, with baffles separating the musicians. “This is how we record everyone in this room,” Mr. Hahn told the musicians. “Tried and true, it works great.”
But it didn’t work great. “Sorry, but we can’t record like this,” songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson told the album’s producer, John Simon, recounting the experience in his 2016 memoir, Testimony. “We have to see one another. We have to read each other’s signals.”
The group had developed the album’s material by facing one another in the basement of their pink house near Woodstock, N.Y. Mr. Hahn warned the musicians that to work that way in the studio wasn’t feasible, as their instruments and vocals would bleed into each other’s microphones.
“But I can’t sing with Richard if I can’t see his mouth moving,” insisted bassist Rick Danko, referring to singer-pianist Richard Manuel. “This ain’t worth a damn,” drummer Levon Helm added, succinctly.
Mr. Hahn suggested using Electro-Voice RE15s, a directional type of microphone that wouldn’t pick up ambient sound. Though he cautioned producer Mr. Simon that the equipment wasn’t of the highest quality and that he couldn’t guarantee it would work, Mr. Hahn pushed the “record” button for Tears of Rage and the timeless ballad The Weight.
Right after, Mr. Hahn called in his boss and mentor Mr. Ramone. Looking at the unusual studio set-up skeptically, the studio co-owner threw up his hands but directed Mr. Hahn to let him hear what they’d done.
He was pleasantly surprised. “That’s incredible,” Mr. Ramone said, slapping Mr. Hahn on the back. A quietly radical departure from the psychedelic pop of the day, Music From Big Pink would become a landmark moment in the development of Americana music.
Mr. Hahn learned a lesson – that there was more to recording music than knob tweaking and technical mojo. “Your composers, and especially the musicians, are your best friends because whatever they do reflects on what you’re doing," he said in 2016. "If they’re not happy, you’re not happy. Remember, the music comes first.”
Donald Clarence Hahn, “Donnie” to friends, family and colleagues, was born in Toronto on Feb. 22, 1939. He was a late addition to a musical family originally from Eatonia, Sask., where his parents were pioneers. His father, Harvey Hahn, was a skilled craftsman and resourceful entrepreneur. His mother, Mary Hahn, was a skilled seamstress who came from a family of linen weavers in Europe.
After schooling Donnie’s older siblings in music, Harvey Hahn formed the Harmony Kids in the middle of the Depression with his children Robert, Lloyd, Kay and Joyce. Travelling in a homemade trailer and dressed in wardrobe clothes made by their mother, the Harmony Kids appeared at radio stations and played pass-the-hat shows at small clubs and barns across Canada.
They eventually landed in New York. One night, a burly, tattooed Canadian from a freighter that had just run the North Atlantic U-Boat blockade came into the Red Robin club, the group’s home base. Unaware the Harmony Kids were fellow Canadians, the man said he’d pay $500 to hear his favourite song.
“You can’t possibly know it,” he challenged them. “Try us,” Robert Hahn said. Laying five $100 bills on the bar, the man said, “Okay, play me The Maple Leaf Forever.”
He nearly fell off his bar stool when the group performed it.
When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, the family’s immigration status changed. The Hahns moved to Montreal, where Donnie would be raised and the Harmony Kids would disband.
In high school, Donnie was a drummer in a rock band that would cross the border to play a club owned by a cheapskate who would wrap a chain around the refrigerator and pay the group in whichever currency was trading at the lower rate.
After studying at the Radio College of Canada in Montreal at the dawn of the 1960s Mr. Hahn landed a job as a studio engineer for the Top 40 AM station CKGM. Around that time he met his future wife on a blind date.
“We went bowling,” Dianne (Sebis) Hahn said. “I beat him, and we never played again.”
The couple dated for five years before exchanging vows. A school teacher who later became a TV host and authored children’s books, she had married a music-oriented man whose standards were sky-high. “Donnie wouldn’t even let me sing in the shower.”
Her husband’s career led them to the famous A&R Recording Studios in New York, where the owners, Mr. Ramone and Art Ward, encouraged Mr. Hahn as he developed into one of the most accomplished engineers of his time.
In the recording world, engineers are the unsung heroes. “The producer gets all the glory, and all the royalties, but it’s the engineer who gets the sound,” Canadian songwriter-producer Jim Vallance told The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Hahn developed his expertise with orchestras at A&R, where he engineered big-band albums such as 1970′s Consummation by trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis.
He once worked a session for James Brown, who tipped Mr. Hahn handsomely. Worried about taking the subway to his home in Queens with a load of cash, he stuffed the bills into his shoes and socks. “We used the money to buy a rug and furniture for our enclosed front porch,” his wife recalled.
Before raising three children, the couple were frequent fliers, travelling, on one occasion, literally around the world. Because his wife worked for Eastern Airlines, the airfare was minimal. “We went to every major continent except Australia,” Ms. Hahn said. “It cost us $3 to fly tourist, and $5 first class. If we weren’t working, we were on an airplane."
In 1977, Mr. Hahn was recruited by Herb Alpert to relocate to Los Angeles at A&M Studios, the facility the Tijuana Brass trumpeter co-founded with Gerry Moss. There he progressed from senior mixer to director of operations to the studio’s vice-president and general manager. Mr. Hahn was at the soundboard for Mr. Alpert’s Grammy-winning comeback single Rise in 1979.
Nicknamed “Napoleon,” Mr. Hahn was known as an opinionated man who didn’t mince words but could splice audio tape with the best of them. “He was very facile with his abilities, he was tough and he wanted things done right,” Mr. Alpert told The Globe.
One of the many engineers Mr. Hahn mentored was an untried Canadian who was working at an L.A. stereo shop when he landed an interview at A&M. "He looked at me and said, ‘You’re from Montreal, your name is Faccone, you went to Berklee School of Music, you must be good,’ " Benny Faccone recalled. “He offered me $75 per week, but my wife and I just had our first child and I was making $200 at the job I already had.”
The young man was told by Mr. Hahn, “Take it or leave it.” Mr. Faccone took it and went on to earn five Grammys.
Mr. Hahn was something of a Barbra Streisand-whisperer at A&M, where he worked on the singer’s Yentl soundtrack and The Broadway Album in the 1980s. “He had a knack for walking into a room full of 60 or 70 musicians and getting a blend that was ready to record in five minutes,” Mr. Faccone said. “Sessions like those could be real pressure cookers, with Stephen Sondheim there, and Phil Ramone, and Barbra wanting to sing live with the orchestra. But Don always had a smile on his face. He made it look easy, which really eased the tension.”
One day in 1985, Mr. Faccone was told by Mr. Hahn that he’d be required to help him on a session without pay. Mr. Faccone protested, but there was no negotiation. “You’re working for free, you have no choice, now get out of my office," Mr. Hahn told him.
The session was for the megacharity single We Are The World.
Mr. Hahn also worked on Frank Sinatra’s Duets albums in the early 1990s. The veteran crooner was skeptical about redoing songs he had recorded earlier in his career. “Don’t worry, this’ll be great,” the producer, Mr. Ramone, assured him. As Mr. Ramone walked away he heard Mr. Sinatra say, sotto voce, “It better be.”
In 2002, Mr. Hahn and his wife retired to Henderson, Nev. He was an RV enthusiast who preferred to drive at night. When his wife would drift to sleep sitting next to him he would veer the vehicle around the road, waking her up with a shock. “He would close his right eye to make me think he was asleep at the wheel,” Ms. Hahn recalled.
Mr. Hahn kept in touch with his former colleagues via monthly Zoom sessions. It was during one earlier this month when he passed out and hit his head in the fall. He regained consciousness and said he was fine, but died from complications of the fall that day.
He leaves his three children, Dina, Darryl and Derek, and his wife of 55 years. “Donnie always looked after me, I looked after him, and together we looked after the children,” Ms. Hahn said. “That’s the way we saw it, and he had a very, very good life.”