Leo De Gar Kulka
I still hear it fairly often. “You know, I did some sessions with your father back in the sixties!” Actually, Leo was my uncle. He passed away in 1998, but he was an amazing man with a long career in recording, and I’d like to tell part of his story here.
Leo (sometimes called “The Baron”) was born in what’s now the Czech Republic. After studying engineering there, he moved to Los Angeles in 1938. He served in the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) during world War II and Korea. His wartime experiences with wire recorders and radio transmission sparked a lifelong passion for recording and music. In the early 1950’s Leo became a staff engineer at Radio Recorders, the fabled Hollywood studio at 7000 Santa Monica Blvd.
In 1957 Leo founded International Sound at Sunset & Western, one of the first multitrack studios in Hollywood. His Neumann mastering room was the first in town to feature a stereo cutting head. At International Sound, Leo recorded artists such as Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Little Richard, Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, and Sonny Bono. (Rumor has it that Cher worked there briefly as a secretary!) I remember visiting the studio when I was a kid. Leo would start a recorder while chatting with me and my father in the studio, then bring the tape into his mastering room, and cut an acetate for me to take home.
In 1964 Leo moved to San Francisco and opened Golden State Recorders, then one of the largest studios in Northern California. With a Stephens 16-track recorder and a custom multitrack console he helped pioneer the “San Francisco Sound”, recording artists such as Sly Stone, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Michael Bloomfield, Big Brother, The Sons of Champlin, It’s A Beautiful Day, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. (Back then I was a rock-obsessed teenager, and I loved it when Leo invited me to hang out in the control room and watch sessions.)
For more than 10 years, Leo lectured in audio at San Francisco State University. In 1974 he organized and founded the College for Recording Arts, one of the first recording schools. Many of his graduates became successful engineers, producers, and studio owners.
Leo also founded of the San Francisco Chapter of the NARAS. He chaired the San Francisco AES for several terms, and organized the 93rd AES Convention in San Francisco. He was a member of the Bohemian Club, Bohemian Grove, and St. Francis Yacht Club.
The Baron was a flamboyant, unforgettable character. Tall and stout, with a basso profundo voice and a slight Czech accent, he had a commanding presence. His gleaming pate, twinkling eyes, neatly trimmed mustache, silk ascot, and colognes exuded an old world, European charm.
He was also a jokester and raconteur. He loved to tell stories, and sometimes spoke in funny cartoon voices. He was known for witty little sayings, like “I’d rather be a has-been than be a never-was”. In his disc mastering class he’d remind the students to “always clean the cutter head stylus with pith” Then he’d wink and whisper “I’d better be careful how I pronounce that word…”
The Neumann disk cutting room at Golden State was Leo’s pride and joy. In the 70’s and 80’s he cut numerous “direct to disk” projects, and some binaural (“dummy head”) recordings for his Sonic Arts label. In 1994 he closed the College for Recording Arts, to devote his time to analog and digital mastering, specializing in the restoration of vintage recordings.
Leo loved to experiment with new recording techniques, but he was a traditionalist at heart. He used a “back to basics” approach with his students. To the end, Leo waxed ecstatic over his Ampex model 200 (the first tape recorder produced in this country). And he may have been the last living audio engineer to edit tape without a splicing block or a razor blade. He’d lay a section of tape across his left hand, precisely lining it up with his thumb and finger, and using a small scissors, he made fast splices that always joined perfectly.
Leo was one of the greats in our industry. I miss him but I always smile when I hear “Tequila” or “White Bird” on the radio.