Legendary engineer Keith Grant oversaw a golden age of music recording. Before his death earlier this year, he shared with Sound On Sound his memories of the studio he managed for a quarter of a century.
The death earlier this Summer of Keith Grant has deprived the world of audio engineering of one of its most colourful, best-loved and influential figures. Keith rarely gave interviews, allowing his amazing track record to speak for itself, but before his unexpected death, had kindly agreed to talk to SOS about his life, his work, and the studio with which he will forever be associated.
Between 1961 and 1987, under Grant's stewardship, Olympic Studios — both at its original Carlton Street location and the Barnes facility which opened in 1966 — maintained an unrivalled reputation for technical excellence, sonic quality and inimitable atmosphere, making it the go-to studio for so many of rock and pop's leading lights. From Dusty Springfield to the Rolling Stones, BB King to Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie to Led Zeppelin, the Beatles to Pink Floyd, anybody who was anybody during the music industry's golden era could at some point be found laying tracks down at Olympic Studios. In addition, many great classical recordings and TV and movie soundtracks of the '60s, '70s and '80s were cut there. It can truthfully be said that without Keith Grant's pioneering work in shaping and managing Olympic Studios, few record collections would sound the same.
As an engineer, Keith personally recorded nearly 120 Top 20 hits, including Procul Harum's 'Whiter Shade Of Pale', still one of the most widely played tracks on the radio. However, he will probably always be most well known for his orchestral recordings, an area he continued to specialise in after leaving Olympic in 1987. Keith's discography of movie soundtrack credits is about as impressive as it gets: The Italian Job, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Cry Freedom, Jesus Chris Superstar, Shadowlands and The English Patient were just a handful of the many scores that benefited from his engineering genius. As a pioneering studio visionary, brilliant sound recordist and inspirational mentor to so many of the UK's greatest engineers, Keith Grant will be sorely missed. This is his story.
After struggling at school due to his dyslexia and hating the course at the 'technical college' he was subsequently placed in, the teenage Keith Grant decided to pursue his passion for music, and began knocking on the doors of London's recording studios in early 1957. "I went out looking for a job and I got a job on my 16th birthday at Regent Sound Studios in Denmark Street,” he explained. "On day one, I was cutting straight to 78. They said, 'Right, you're a recording engineer, this works like that — off you go!'”
As a teenager, Keith had already showcased considerable technical acumen by building his own amplifiers and other pieces of gear. It wasn't long before Regent Sound's owner Ralph Ellman was taking advantage of the young man's abilities. "In the first year, I rebuilt the studio completely,” said Keith. "I was on four quid a week and I rebuilt the studio acoustically, converted it from 78 to 45 RPM disc cutting, built a tape echo machine and built a guitar amp for the guitars with vibrato on it, which was unheard of, but I'd found a design in an American magazine. After a while, I went back to the boss and said, 'I've been here a year, what about a rise?' Ralph said, 'What have you done?' And then I was poached by IBC.”
By 1958, IBC Studios in Portland Place was London's most successful independent facility. Top IBC recording engineer Eric Tomlinson, who Grant described as an early mentor, had been suitably impressed by a string of publisher demos Keith had been cutting at Regent Sound. Grant spent around a year engineering sessions at IBC before settling on a job at a relatively new studio that had been built inside an 18th Century West End synagogue by partially blind 24-year-old business impresario Angus McKenzie. The name of the studio was Olympic.
McKenzie had initially bought the Olympia Studio in Fulham from Larry Lyons but then, in league with technical partner Dick Swettenham, he converted Carlton Hall — which was situated in Carlton Street, near Piccadilly Circus — into a new independent recording studio, under the soon-to-be-legendary Olympic moniker.
"The actual [Carlton Street] studio itself was 40 by 40 by probably 18 feet high,” recalled Keith Grant. "It was like a biscuit tin and it shouldn't have worked as well as it did. I was involved in the changing of the acoustics — it was a bit clattery when I got there. We had about half-metre, all triangular, square-based cones stuck all over the wall, full of mineral wool, and perforated fibreboard in lots of places. It was a very nice room and a lot of those records were made with no screens. You'd have strings, bass, choir, drums and everything in there at the same time, and they stand up acoustically. They don't sound like a mess: it worked and it all gelled very well together.”
One listen to Dusty Springfield's debut solo 1963 hit 'I Only Want To Be With You', which was arranged by Ivor Raymonde and recorded by Keith Grant, should tell you all you need to know about the acoustic qualities of the Carlton Street live room. The atmosphere in the studio's control room, however, was often rather heated!
"The upstairs control room was a real pain,” explained Grant. "It was all valve equipment, and because of noise problems, we had to have everything insulated heavily, so it was like a permanent sauna up there. There were probably 200 valves or more in the room, and bodies, and you couldn't even put a fan through to the outside world because it would let sound out. You didn't keep cool up there!
"We also had a downstairs vocal booth, and we used to have a really beat-up, ex-army 35mm projector in there to do commercials with. We had a full-time staff projectionist because we were doing so much jingle work. We also did no end of television work. The BBC used to use us a lot, and ITV used to use us a lot. We just did everything. Then there was a basement with a vaulted cellar in it, which we turned into an echo chamber. We blocked it all up and put a speaker and a microphone in there, and that can be heard on many old pop records.”
There was also an unofficial member of the Olympic team, who remained throughout Keith Grant's tenure at both studios. "Allegedly, a French monk had been walled up in the basement, and it had a poltergeist,” said Keith. "Many people experienced the poltergeist at Olympic and it came with us to [the later Olympic studio at] Barnes, where it used to put the lights on in the projection room, even though [the room] was bolted and locked and padlocked and chained!”
After just a couple of years working there, Keith Grant was appointed manager of the Carlton Street facility, partly because of the number of artists and producers who came specifically to work with him. A good percentage of the people he'd recorded at IBC soon became Olympic clients, and the studio's reputation was on the ascendant from almost the moment he stepped through the door.
All the records Keith cut at Carlton Street were made using a 'flat' (ie. conventionally shaped) transistorised desk designed by Dick Swettenham and Angus McKenzie, which had replaced the tube console that had been brought from Olympia Studios in Fulham. "The desk had rotary faders and it had valve amps on the wall and you patched everything into the fader and back out again,” explained Grant. "It had eight faders and eight echoes with one echo send per fader, and an EQ unit on a separate rack which you tweaked and came back to. That went to a four-track Ampex, and I've still got the original deck of that. We had the first four-track in the country and we had the first EMT plate in the country.”
In 1964, Angus McKenzie was notified that the lease he'd acquired for Carlton Street would not be renewed, as the 300-year-old building was going to be knocked down to make way for an underground car park. McKenzie, who by this time had completely lost his sight, decided he wanted to get out of the record business and in 1965, his share of the company was sold to Cliff Adams (known at the time for his successful vocal group, the Cliff Adams Singers) and John Shakespeare. It was Keith Grant who initiated the urgent search for new Olympic premises once Carlton Street's 1966 demolition date had been set in stone.
A sizeable derelict television studio belonging to Guild TV, at 117-123 Church Road, Barnes, was eventually earmarked by Grant as the ideal recording venue, and it was duly purchased by the new Olympic company. The early-20th century Byfeld Hall building had operated as both a theatre and a cinema at various times, but when Keith Grant first laid his eyes on the place, his creative studio brain was forced to work overtime.
"When we found it, it would have made you cry if you'd seen what the inside of it was like,” remembered Keith. "All the walls were like a thick wodge of a mineral wool, which had chicken wire all over it and it was just nailed on the wall, and had been on there forever and ever and ever. It was thick with dust, and I mean, thick, thick dust! The place was 40 feet long by 30 feet wide by about 22 feet high, and round the edge of it was a gantry welded to the wall, which was wide enough to get a camera and dolly to ride all the way round the studio. You could see out of the roof! The floor was all up and the water had gone right through to the basement!”
When it came to designing and building the acoustic structure of the new studio complex, Keith enlisted a team of the highest quality. His father Robertson Grant, a renowned architect, played a key role from the very beginning. "I got totally my own way with the studio, which was fantastic, and I brought in the people that I wanted to bring in, all of whom were amazing,” said Grant. "I didn't use my dad because it was nepotic — he was an extremely good architect. He designed and built huge hospitals for the North West Regional Hospital Board. He was a serious man and he knew his stuff.”
The acoustics for Studio One were designed by Keith and Russel Pettinger and they "almost got them right first time”. A mistake over the fitting of the ceiling tiles was only completely remedied in 1968, when Marxist film director Jean-Luc Godard rolled up to shoot the Rolling Stones for his Sympathy For The Devil feature.
"There was one terrible cock-up about percentage of absorption against reflection,” sighed Keith. "The ceiling tiles were meant to be 70 percent absorptive and 30 percent reflective, but they went up the other way round. When the roof was up, we put this hard vinyl floor down, and when we tested the sound, we went 'Oh, no!' but it was a bit too late to do anything. After about two or three weeks of trying to cope with how it sounded, which I hated, a dear friend of mine, Chris Hind, and I spent a whole weekend 20-odd feet off the ground in a sort of fireman's lift and we draped hessian cloth, which killed [the problem]. Then, when Jean-Luc Godard recorded the Rolling Stones in there for a film, they put diffusing paper underneath the lightbulbs. So you'd got hessian, lightbulbs, diffusing paper, and at two o'clock in the morning, one of the lightbulbs went 'pop' and the studio caught light! I arrived there at three o'clock in the morning, the fire engines were there and you could see out of the studio roof! We had a session at 10... The studio was a bit of a mess but we did it with a hole in the roof, which was absolutely amazing! And, therefore, we were able to rebuild the roof with the right tiles on it, with the right value, not upside down, and it was a blessing in disguise because we put the place right and then it was just glorious… the wonderful acoustic savour of 'Sympathy For The Devil' — it did me the best favour in the world!”
Aside from the ceiling-tile gaffe, there was one other early error during the acoustic building process in the main studio. Again, the problem was quickly remedied by Keith and his pal Chris Hind. "I believe a studio should have no parallel surfaces, so if you've got two walls facing each other, then you've got to make it work so they aren't parallel,” explained Grant. "The way I did that in Barnes was to use slats of wood, which should have all been nailed in at different angles, but somehow that hadn't been understood or taken on board. They were all nailed flat, so you'd still got parallel surfaces. I was doing so many other things at the time that I hadn't noticed. So my friend Chris and I went in one Sunday with a crowbar and a hammer and just pulled them all out on their nails and redid them. When it first opened up, I was very disappointed in the slap [echo] because you could hear it in the orchestral stuff. I was tearing my hair out. But once we fixed that, it was just lovely. That was the end of the tweaking. The room then worked with no secondary echo and just very clean sounds throughout.”
While the building work was taking place at Barnes, sessions at the Carlton Street studio continued as per normal. The aim was to minimise overall disruption to the business: the moment the West End space closed its doors for good, the new facility would be up and running in a matter of days. Another early decision taken was that a new desk would be needed for Barnes. Olympic's legendary Technical Director Dick Swettenham was the brains behind the audio design for the new 24-input 'wrap-around' console, which would utilise Lustraphone transformers and germanium transistors.
"Dick and I worked very well together”, said Keith. "I loved Dick and I thought he was the most wonderful guy. He was battier than I am and that's saying something! Dick's wonderful attribute was that he would never be happy. He would make something and bring it to me to evaluate, and I'd listen to it and I'd say, 'Make it just do a bit of this and a bit of that.' He'd take it away and he'd adjust it and he'd bring it back again and I'd go, 'Hey, that's really good, Dick. I like that!' But he'd take it away and adjust it again and you'd say 'Now that's not as good,' and you'd have to force him to go back one stage. From the ears side, sometimes you can make things better but they're worse technically, like third-harmonic distortion. He'd say, 'We can't have third-harmonic distortion!' and I'd say, 'But we love third-harmonic distortion, what are you talking about?'”
The revolutionary 'wrap-around' ergonomics of Olympic's new Studio One desk were Keith Grant's idea. "The problem with that first 'flat' Dick Swettenham desk, and the problem with most desks to this day, is that if you want to do some things, you've got to stand up, go tweakle, tweakle, tweakle, and then sit down again,” explained Grant. "I'm basically sedentary, which is a posh word for being lazy! But if you're adjusting an EQ, you want to adjust it from where you're sitting. You don't want to be standing up and moving four foot forward into the sound pitch while adjusting the EQ, because when you sit down it sounds different. So we designed the desk so everything was in your hands and you didn't have to move your head more than necessary. You could reach the EQ and you could see what you were doing.”
This pioneering approach to desk design brought with it a welcome side-effect. "The producer couldn't get on the desk!” laughed Keith. "The producer couldn't get in your way and he couldn't get his hands on the board — although we did have a 'DFA' fader for the producer. We used to designate this DFA fader, which was at the very end: 'That's yours, OK?' 'What's DFA?' 'That's yours, that'll work!'”
When Olympic Carlton Street's life as a studio did finally come to an end, one Friday towards the end of 1966, the impressive new Barnes complex was almost ready — as planned — to commence its first recording session early the following week. The eye-catching new console was raring to go, but there was still rather a panicked weekend in store, with a slew of gear and instruments waiting to be transferred across town before the bulldozers moved in. "We had to move the piano, the mics, the mic stands, the tape machines, the loudspeakers and all the echo plates and God knows what else across London,” recalled Grant. "There were a lot of people involved and a lot of running around for two or three days. Clive Green [later of Cadac Electronics] was on board by then, and he was Dick's number two. Anyway, Clive had a Rolls Royce, and I remember loading up Clive's Rolls Royce with mics and other stuff in the back of it. It was quite extraordinary, all of it!”
If you want to see some incredible footage of the first ever Olympic Barnes recording session with French vocal group the Swingle Singers, take a look at this 'Look At Life' clip from 4.40 onwards: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T9_es6goig
Within a couple of years of the new Olympic opening in 1966, a remix room (which would later become Studio Three) and a second studio had been added to the complex, both fitted with 'Olympic' desks hand-built by Dick Swettenham and his team in their basement workshop. Studio Two, in particular, became unexpectedly popular with rock bands.
"We opened Studio Two up as a wing to Studio One probably in '68 but we never, for one second, imagined that the groups would want to go in it,” explained Keith. "It was opened for little jingles and things like Sing Something Simple [a regular radio programme presented by Olympic Studios co-owner Cliff Adams, accompanied by the Cliff Adams Singers] and just generally quiet, sort of sedate, innocuous sessions — but then the groups liked it and, of course, that then presented no end of problems, like when you've got 600 Watts of guitar amp in Studio Two and 200 Watts of orchestra in Studio One! We had to do something about it, so we just bit the bullet and spent the money.”
Keith's dad Robertson Grant once again came to the rescue with some ingenious and wholly innovative studio architecture. "Dad saw the problem and went away and thought about it and said, 'Oh, this is what we do!'” said Grant. "He designed Studio Two as a completely floating box, all on rubber pads, and just the steelwork weighed about 17 tons. When we shut the door, you could put a rock band in there flat out, and you wouldn't hear a thing outside. Before that, you'd be recording some quiet film music [in Studio One] and, of course, you'd have to say 'Can you shut up, 'cause we can hear you?' The new room was like a fridge on castors. It had its own air-conditioning system and it worked — you really couldn't hear anything next door. It was very impressive, particularly in those days, because that sort of acoustic architecture hadn't really come into its own in any way. People were lead-lining walls with the hope of trying to stop some sound getting out of a room but Dad said, 'Oh no, we don't do that, we'll just float the whole bloody lot!'”
The new Olympic Studio Two space was finished in 1969, complete with a vibrant décor designed by Mick Jagger. By this time, Dick Swettenham had left Olympic to form his own console manufacturing company, Helios, and Keith Grant duly commissioned him to build a new desk for Studio Two. This was the first and only Helios console to be installed at Barnes. In the late '70s, the original Studio One desk — which had been extended and modified several times over the years to accommodate larger multitrack formats — was replaced by a new in-house board, designed and built by Jim McBride with help from Jim Dowler. During the same time period, the Studio Two and Studio Three consoles were replaced by bespoke Raindirk desks, the latter of which was still being used in Keith Grant's studio in Sunbury-On-Thames at the time this interview took place.
Of course, Olympic's extraordinary success throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s was also a product of the high calibre of engineering and technical staff that Keith Grant sought out, employed and mentored. Only the best would do. Toby Alington, Doug Bennett, Simon Bohannon, Jerry Boys, Phill Brown, Terry Brown, Phil Buckley, Laurence Burrage, Phil Chapman, George Chkiantz, Jim Dowler, Gus Dudgeon, George Forest, Vic Gamm, Bill Gill, Clive Green, David Hamilton-Smith, Keith Harwood, Andy Johns, Clive Kavan, Chris Kimsey, Eddie Kramer, Jim McBride, Roger Mayer, Alan O'Duffy, Gerry O'Riordan and Roger Savage were just a few of the guys who worked at Olympic during its heyday and helped contribute to the buzzing, democratic atmosphere that resonated through the place.
"One great thing about Olympic was that nobody kept secrets, particularly on the recording side,” explained Keith. "If anybody found out how to do something, everybody was told. When George Chkiantz discovered how to do flanging on 'Itchycoo Park' [a 1967 hit single by the Small Faces, widely believed to be the first recorded instance of tape flanging], everybody knew about it the next day, everybody! And the same with miking an orchestra up, the way you set up the studio, EQ settings and echo settings. Everybody shared ideas and there were no secrets.
"The cameraderie there was of the highest. The way it worked was that if you weren't needed, you didn't have to work, and if you were needed, you did have to work. It was a straightforward deal. You might have to do a hundred hours this week but next week, you might go home and we'd pay you anyway! And if you were needed to help somebody else, it wasn't a question of 'Oh, that's not my job!' We'd all get stuck in. I'd go and make the tea. It worked like that right across the board. Anybody who worked at Olympic will tell you that's the way it was. We all were equal and nobody was actually in charge. You knew what you had to do and you did it. The arrangement worked and it was fabulous. It was absolute, hysterical fun, and the bands loved it. You know, Keith Richards would come and play on somebody else's record and Mick [Jagger] would turn up and Lennon would turn up and do something. Lennon's Rolls Royce would often be outside, even though he wasn't working. They used the place as a floating nightclub base. From one o'clock in the morning, there could be anybody in there. They'd just turn up to hang out and then get involved in each other's sessions.”
In January 2009, Olympic Studios shut its doors for the last time, and the British recording industry lost one of its most important and historically significant recording spaces. Even though Keith had left Olympic in 1987 — after it was purchased by Virgin, who went on to completely redesign and rebuild it — the studios were understandably still very close to his heart. The old space in Barnes is currently being converted into what will become The Olympic Cinema, which marks a return to former pre-studio glories. New owner Stephen Burdge plans to include memorabilia commemorating the building's recording legacy, while ex-Olympic engineer Chris Kimsey is also maintaining a small studio in the basement. At a time when so many historic spaces are being levelled and turned into executive flats, this has to be rather welcome news, a sentiment that Keith Grant wholeheartedly shared with us.
"I think [Stephen Burdge] will do well,” enthused Keith. "He's got his heart in the right place, he's doing some tremendous work inside and he wants to keep the reputation of the studio alive. He's also got a lot of support and he's won the Barnes people over, which is the hardest thing. As you can imagine, we did have problems with that, what with Rolls Royces turning up at three o'clock in the morning on top of everything else — but those were the happiest days of my life.”
From 1966 through to 1972, the Rolling Stones were almost part of the furniture at Olympic Studios in Barnes, and recorded the majority of six albums there during that time period. As already mentioned, Mick Jagger was even handed responsibility for designing the décor (and sourcing the furniture) for Studio Two in 1969.
However, Carlton Street was the recording venue for the Stones' first ever Olympic session back in 1963, when they cut their debut single 'Come On', a Chuck Berry cover, with engineer Roger Savage. Keith Grant recalls his surprise when he heard the playback for the very first time.
"A BBC producer called Jimmy Grant, who was a mate of mine, rang me up and said, 'I'm going out to see this group in Richmond, do you want to come with me?',” explained Keith. "So I picked him up and we went down and there was this absolutely terrible band there! So we went and had a pint and we just thought 'Forget that.' But about three days later, Roger Savage, who was one of my very good protégé assistants, said, 'Andrew Oldham's got this little band and he wants to do a session — do you mind if we do it as a freebie?' And I said, 'Yeah', because I loved to give the guys chances to get their hands on the knobs. And Roger played it to me the next morning and I said, 'Bloody hell, that's good! What's the band called?' and he said, 'The Rolling Stones'. I said, 'Oh, come on!' — no pun intended — 'You're joking, I went to see these with Jimmy and they were awful!' It was the same band and it was a pretty damn good record! Then Eric Easton, the group's other manager, rang the studio the next morning to say 'We'd like to actually pay for the session.' So I think Roger got four pounds, 10 shillings for his engineering for the night, and that was 'Come On'…”
Fans of the many classic records made at Olympic Barnes during the '60s and '70s will, no doubt, be interested to hear that the modules from the original Studio One and Studio Three Olympic desks designed and built by Dick Swettenham and his technical team are now being sold, repackaged in 'lunchbox' format. For the last few years of his life, Keith Grant had been working hard on the venture with ex-Olympic technical engineer and close friend Jim Dowler.
"These will give people the original 1966 Olympic Studios sound, which cannot be replicated any other way,” explained Keith during our interview.
These original designs pre-date the later Helios gear that Swettenham began building for Olympic Studio Two and Island Studios at Basing Street in 1969. Some core components, such as the Lustraphone M10 mic transformers, needed to be replaced; these have been meticulously replicated by Jim Dowler and Raindirk's Cyril Jones, who personally wound the bobbins by hand.
"We have got as close to the original as possible,” said Jim Dowler. "Everything has been wound by hand on the mic amp transformer because, if it's done by machine, everything becomes too neat and tidy and too packed-together. Now, that's great from a production point of view but it smoothes the response out slightly and that's exactly what you don't want. That Olympic sound is dependent on the Lustraphone transformers.”
The germanium transistors, another essential element contributing to those classic Olympic records, have been dropped into identical boards within the repackaged modules.
"The later Helios circuitry is similar, but the critical thing is that the circuits on Olympic One were the Mark 1 and Mark 2 versions of the electronics,” continued Jim. "They contain germanium transistors and that's the key to that Olympic sound. The first generation of Helios consoles contained all silicon transistors.”
The number of modules available for purchase is, obviously, very limited. A mic preamp that's a copy of the original will also be available until the new old stock of the germanium transistors runs out. To find out more about the Olympic '65 Original modules and mic preamps, check out www.olympicsoundstudios.com