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Left or right. A decision we make at least a dozen times a day. In most cases, we do it without much thought to the consequences, because frankly, in most cases, there are none. Imagine, then, facing such a decision, left or right, with the potential to change not only your life, but also the course of history. As a young soldier in the final days of World War II, John T. “Jack” Mullin ’36 turned left, and the world would never listen to music the same way again.
Outside of Mullin’s family, friends, and professionals in the recording industry, few know the story of Jack Mullin, who died in 1999. That is how Mullin would have wanted it. He was an engineer who liked to tinker with machines. He loved his family and friends. He had a passion for classical music. Fame and fortune could have been his if he wanted it, but he didn’t. Now, seven years after his death, Jack Mullin’s story is being told on the big screen. “Sound Man,” a documentary about his love of music, his extraordinary life, and his innovative spirit, premiered to a full house at the Cinequest film festival in San Jose this spring. It puts into context Mullin’s role in Santa Clara University history, Silicon Valley history, and American history. The story of the man behind the sound is finally being heard.
As a young soldier with the Signal Corps stationed in England during World War II, Mullin would lay awake at night listening to music on the BBC. When it went off the air at midnight, he would begin scanning the dial in search of a replacement. The German radio stations were the ones that came in the best. Mullin was amazed at the quality of the music they were broadcasting: It sounded as if the orchestra were playing live. But surely, Mullin thought, not even Hitler would make his musicians play each night from midnight to dawn. Just how did the Germans record such a high quality of sound? It was a question Mullin would find the answer to before returning home from the war.
In the summer of 1945, the war was ending, but not Mullin’s work. His unit was responsible for uncovering, dissecting, and analyzing the enemy’s electronic achievements. He was sent to Germany to check out reports of a high- frequency electronic device with the ability to cause airplane engines to malfunction in flight. While Mullin and his team did find some abandoned apparatus, nothing came of their findings. The mission, however, at least for Mullin, was not a complete bust. He met a British officer who shared his passion for music and electronics. Even better, this man had insights into how the Germans were recording sound. The Allies had uncovered a device called a magnetophon. The officer encouraged Mullin to check out the machine. It was an intriguing idea. On the way back from the mission, Mullin encountered that fork in the road. Right led to Paris and his unit. Left to what was likely a wild goose chase. Mullin went left. It was “the greatest decision of my life,” he later wrote.
The quality of the German magnetophon proved to be every bit as technologically terrific as Mullin had envisioned when he first heard those symphonic concerts playing late into the night. In “Sound Man,” Mullin recalls the magical moment when he first heard the German tape recorder. “It was one of the greatest thrills in my life,” he said. “I will never forget that moment. I had never heard anything like it.”
Mullin had found what he was looking for. He immediately went to work gathering as much information as he could about the magnetophon, knowing very well that nothing like it existed outside of Germany. He filled out the appropriate papers to take two of the machines back to the U.S. as souvenirs of war. In order to do so, though, he had to completely dismantle the machines and put the pieces into individual boxes to meet shipping regulations. All of the boxes arrived intact. Had just one been lost, it would have been like having a tremendous jigsaw puzzle completed, save for one piece, never to be found, impossible to replace.
Back at home in San Francisco, his Army days behind him, Jack dove into reassembling, improving, and modifying the magnetophon. He slept, ate, and showered in his studio, determined to master and perfect this technology that could capture in truth one of the great passions of his life: music. “He loved music so much that he was devoted to reproducing sound that sounded live,” said his daughter Eve Mullin Collier. Unbeknownst to him, Mullin was on the brink of changing American music history.
Ampex, a Bay Area company that was building motors and generators during the war, was in the market for a new product and Mullin’s modified magnetophon was it. “John was truly a genius in his field, and I mean that in every sense of the word,” said Santa Clara University classmate and friend Bill Nicholson ’36. “John really understood the essence of electricity and what it could be made to do.” It did not take long for the new technology to catch on, in large part because of one very bright Hollywood star: Bing Crosby.
At the time, it was unheard of to record radio shows. Everything was live because the recording quality was not up to broadcast standards.
Mullin was very much part of the Crosby show recordings, spending hours in the studio with Crosby himself, putting together the perfect show. In the early days, the audience would come into the studio and Mullin would record their reactions to Crosby’s jokes. When the show was edited and certain sections were taken out, Mullin would be sure to save the recordings of the audience’s laughter to help smooth over edits in the audio track. He created what he called his “laugh library.” It did not take long for producers to realize the value of the laugh library, and soon Mullin was asked to insert different laughs to get the reaction the show’s producers wanted. Little did Mullin know that he was inventing what would become known as the “laugh track.”
It comes as no surprise that the laugh track is what Mullin may be best known for today. After all, while the tape recorder is fast becoming ancient history, the laugh track can still be heard each night on prime-time television. Ironically, the laugh track is the antithesis of what endeared Mullin to the magnetophon and the high quality of magnetic tape in the first place. It was the trueness of sound that he loved, a far cry from canned laughter.
Soon after Crosby began recording his shows, Ampex was selling its Model 200 tape recorders to just about every radio station and music producer in the country. “Because of him, America had a 20-year advantage in tape recording,” said Scott Budman, technology reporter and director of “Sound Man.” Stars big and small could do what they wanted, when they wanted, and where they wanted. The way Americans listened to music was changed forever.
So why is it that, outside of family, associates, and audiophiles, few have heard the story of Jack Mullin, the sound recording pioneer? The answer may be as simple as Mullin himself. Mullin was an only child, born into an Irish Catholic family and grew up during the Depression. His family took pleasure in the simpler things in life—walks through the redwoods and Sunday drives. Mullin never strayed far from this way of life, even when he was working with some of Hollywood’s biggest names. “If he had blown his own horn a little bit, we would have books written about this guy, we would have films written about this guy, but he didn’t. He refused to,” Budman said. Putting on airs and calling attention to himself was not Mullin’s style. He did not see professional accomplishments as personal ones, his friend Nicholson recalled. Instead, Mullin stayed grounded in faith and family; it was that simple. He was a devout Catholic who said the rosary every day, and a father who raised three young children on his own after losing his wife at an early age. “There were just no clouds in his life,” his daughter said. “He was just so at peace with himself, at peace with the world, at peace with his God.”
Mullin’s fascination with sound equipment and his love for music were well-known to his children. Collier remembers her father’s extensive music library, the original magnetophon set up in their home, and the early original recordings of Bing Crosby her father loved to share with guests. He was an engineer through and through and wanted to share his knowledge, innovations, and findings with others. Growing up, Collier remembers her father’s projects always spread out on a table or in the garage. “If we ever wanted to talk to Dad about a homework problem or something that happened at school, he’d be tinkering away on the stuff.”
Mullin became an avid collector of sound technology equipment and was eventually invited to take his display on the road. When Collier was in high school, her father brought her along as an assistant. They would split the exhibit in two parts: She would talk about the history of the equipment from 1877 to 1932, and her dad would pick it up from there and take it to the present. Traveling with her father and working by his side is one of Collier’s most cherished memories. “Seeing the camaraderie, seeing how much they [industry professionals] admired him, seeing him in his element, and not just as a dad—it was pretty cool,” she recalled. Mullin’s collection is now housed in the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis Park, Minn. Included in the collection is one of the original magnetophons Mullin brought over from Germany.
Mullin was living with his daughter when he died in 1999 at the age of 85. The night before his death, Mullin spent time doing what he loved most, listening to music with his friends and spending time with his family. Collier speaks about her father, and what he gave to the world, with understandable pride. “The memory of him makes you feel good. When people hear his name, it makes them smile,” she said. Budman described Mullin as having a Zelig-like quality about him. He was a man who was a part of some of the most important events of his time—World War II, the transformation of Hollywood, and the birth of Silicon Valley—yet never the center of attention, never in the spotlight.
On his headstone, Mullin’s family wanted to keep it simple, just like Mullin himself. They put his name, his dates, and one line of text: “An extraordinary gentleman.”
How often is it that we know the exact time and place when our lives are changed forever? For Jack Mullin it was that decision he made in the summer of ’45. His choice to go left instead of right changed not only his life, but also American sound recording history.
—Karen Crocker Snell is media relations officer for Santa Clara University.