At Levy’s, and dreaming of starting a recording studio
Geoff Frost has called Levy’s essentially a “jobbing” studio; that is, anything and everything, including sound effects, was recorded there. Geoff had been Chief Engineer at Levy’s since 1959 while associate John Wood had joined the staff in 1962. The decision to start their own venture was prompted partly because Geoff and John wanted to be their own bosses and partly because Maurice Levy had just sold the firm to U.S. recording industry giant CBS Records, leaving the pair with some uncertainty about their future employment. Though a meticulous and technically astute pair, there interestingly was no great forethought in their decision to leave.
John Wood later reminisced: “We decided we’d start a recording studio, and with that wonderful ignorance is bliss mentality, impetuousness of youth, we thought we’d just get on and do it and do a better job than Levy’s … so Geoff left in September  and started looking for premises and that was it!”
Though in no way a guarantee of success, the variety of complementary skills that Geoff (then aged 28) and John (aged 24) possessed had helped ensure that Sound Techniques Chelsea (S.T.C.) had a solid footing for future success. In his role as Chief Engineer at Levy’s, Geoff had assumed the lead technical role in building and maintaining the studio’s equipment in addition to overseeing engineering sessions. Wood meanwhile had apprenticed with Decca Records, and his editing of classical recordings had finely tuned his ear for the more subtle inflections of folk and folk rock recordings.
To finance their venture, Geoff Frost secured a loan with Barclays Bank and the company was officially registered in December 1964, after a name for the company had been chosen during a “swift but inspired telephone conversation” between Wood and Frost. John Wood remembers:
“Geoff rang me up from Peter Godfrey’s office, who was our solicitor, saying, ‘We’ve got to have a name for the company!’ … and I’m sitting in the control room at Levy’s, and there’s a Pultec on the rack and an Altec compressor and I see Pulse Techniques underneath Pultec so I said ‘Well, what about Sotec or Sound Techniques?’, and that’s literally where our name came from. And it was a great name! The biggest mistake we made was not registering it across the world!”
At the time Frost joined Levy’s in 1959, the studio’s basic control equipment comprised two Vortexion 4-way mixers, a passive two way mixer, an EMI BTR2 and a Tannoy 15” dual concentric speaker in a Lockwood cabinet. But as the years went on, and through Frost’s persistence, both the quantity and quality of equipment they installed improved greatly.
Their experience at Levy’s encouraged Frost and Wood to hone the technical skills that would prepare them to both design and build mixing desks – not only for S.T.C. but for other studios around the world. To quote Frost: “We never started out to manufacture mixers for anyone other than ourselves … It came as a bit of a surprise when people saw the first desk at Chelsea and said ‘this sounds great, can you make one for us?’”
As far as the studio’s configuration and acoustics were concerned, Frost and Wood had the benefit of a journey Geoff made to an American studio earlier in 1964. As Frost recalled:
“I got on a plane to Nashville to look at the American studios to find out why they got such better sounds than the English studios … There was an incredible difference in the sound. American stuff was open, it was loud – the stuff from British studios was very sort of twee and dull. The sound coming out of America, particularly from Bradley’s, really impressed me personally. So the first thing I did when we got off the plane was, after finding a hotel, I knocked on Bradley’s door and said, ‘I’m a chief engineer from London, is it possible for your chief engineer to show me ‘round?’ And they said, ‘Well, of course!’ And Bradley’s was by the far the most impressive studio I saw and just the kind of studio that John and I wanted to build.”
The perfect blend of acoustics and equipment
One of the most important revelations Geoff took away from his visit to Bradley’s was that the acoustics weren’t anything like those of English studios, where the idea was to make everything sound “as dead as possible.” Bradley’s had a very alive and powerful sound from their plain walls and very high ceilings. The Nashville studio also had very minimal equipment. The English had, for the longest time, been going in a mistaken direction to achieve an “American” sound by adding more equipment. Frost remembers:
“Bradley’s had a very simple desk – I think it was an ex-broadcast desk – a Bendix or a Gates or something like that and they had outboard EQs – they had Langevins and all the Langevins were locked in at 3k 8db boost position and left there!”
In December of 1964, Frost and Wood opened their new studio off the King’s Road at 46a Old Church Street, Chelsea. Notably, it was one of the earliest independent sound recording studios in the U.K. Housed in an old dairy, the studio closely resembled a garage with a cobbled floor. The floor had a gentle slope towards an elevator at the far end. The slope was originally there to drain off the water when cows were hosed down. Interestingly, the studio was on the first floor of what Frost termed “a Victorian milking parlor!”
In order to achieve a “Bradley’s type sound,” a team of builders was recruited to modify the studio space. An eighth of an inch of asphalt was laid on the floor to dampen the sound to an extent (another Nashville tip), then covered with carpet, though the original gradual slope from the dairy days was left as it was, which Frost and Wood felt possibly contributed to the room’s unique sound. And, while pursuing the best possible acoustics, Frost recalled:
“John and I went around clapping our hands, and we’d say, ‘Ooh, we need something up there!’ but bearing in mind we were so short of money, we did as little as possible! Underneath the office, we left the old fashioned lathe and plaster ceiling which did great things for strings.”
Another critical factor that made a studio’s sound unique was reverb (an electronically produced echo effect) – whether from echo chambers or plates. At S.T.C., Wood tweaked their reverb plates masterfully. Before the era of excessive multi-track recording, a recording room’s contours were paramount. S.T.C.’s high ceiling in the middle, the space under the office on the right hand and other logistical factors provided the natural spillage amongst microphones that made possible the studio’s unique sound. These factors are subtle, but to sound professionals and ultimately the listening public, also indispensable. For instance, strings and rhythm sections were typically placed in the center of the room under the high section of the ceiling, again using the particular idiosyncrasies of the old dairy to bring out the best in the sounds that ended up on tape.
Innovations in recording and mixing technology
During the 1960s and 70s, S.T.C. studio enjoyed unqualified success at the top-end of the music business as did its manufacturing division. With the latter, Frost and Wood commenced work during 1964 on a pioneering range of audio recording consoles starting with their “A Range” desks, followed in 1969 by the “System 12” mixer – one of the first ever compact desks in production. Eventually, forty or so of these desks were built and sold.
The System 12 was conceived during a brief stop along the road for a cup of tea, where John Wood, in a manner reminiscent of other high-intensity start-up entrepreneurs, drained the café’s supply of napkins sketching out prototypes. Eventually, the desks that Geoff designed for Sound Techniques would also help shape the sound of the records made at Chelsea as well as the other studios they supplied. For example, Trident and De Lane Lea (at both Kingsway and Wembley) bought a succession of S.T.C. mixers over the years, as did Sunset Sound and Elektra studios in California.
Establishing a reputation for excellence
At the time of Studio Techniques’ inception, a majority of studios in London had the reputation of being, as Frost notes, “stuffy and oppressive, manned and administered by scientists in brown lab coats who had little interest in the nasty guitar music that had so rudely thrust itself upon them.” But by the middle of the 1960s, new independent labels like S.T.C. were primary innovators in advancing a new, “hip” recording environment with a passion for popular music. For instance, on the 11th and 12th of January 1967, Pink Floyd and producer Joe Boyd spent two days at Sound Techniques, recording and mixing “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Nick’s Boogie” for the Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London soundtrack.
A seminal moment for the studio was when Elektra Records began booking time there. The label was referred to S.T.C. by ex-EMI engineer (and good friend) Malcolm Addey. It was through this relationship with Elektra that S.T.C. came to know producer Joe Boyd – after which Pink Floyd and many other musicians found their way to S.T.C.
“It was much funkier than places like CBS or Abbey Road, the bigger studios that people had spent lots of money on” said Dave Pegg, bass guitarist for Fairport Convention, “But those studios never had very good ambiences as far as I was concerned. Sound Techniques was like coming home to us – and there was the cake shop next door and the pub opposite – I remember the pub opposite really well!” And Craig Leon, a noted composer who produced the first Ramones album and who now composes and produces classical music, said of Sound Techniques: “I think what was great about the place was the room and how John and Geoff understood how to get the best out of their console since they knew it so well. It was just right for recording acoustic singer/songwriter folk music.”
Foremost amongst its many advantages, S.T.C. studio was designed to be functional. Function arose from form and substance trumped style.
The end of an era and, like the phoenix, reinvention
The Sound Techniques studio under the stewardship of John Wood and Geoff Frost came to a sad end in 1974 after the existing lease ran out. John Wood continued in the music industry becoming a successful freelance engineer and producer while Geoff continued to use the Sound Techniques facility to run a burgeoning software development house. The Chelsea studio freehold was bought by Olympic Studios, who continued to use the facilities until the early 1980s. When S.T.C. studio closed its doors in 1976, the manufacturing division (now based in Mildenhall, Suffolk) diversified into computer software. S.T.C. (now known as S.T.L. Technologies) soon got a contract to install the first computer system dedicated to Magistrates’ Courts software. The company has since flourished and now specializes in the development of law enforcement systems and software.
Geoff Frost creating a schematic on building an analogue mixer (“A bit bleeding obvious, you say?!”):
For further viewing and reading:
Matt Frost, music writer (and son of Geoff), has written an excellent history of the studio at Sound on Sound magazine. This has significantly informed the present article.
Sound Techniques’ YouTube channel is an invaluable resource for learning more about the history of the studio, in addition to technical instruction.
*Author’s note: I will be interviewing Geoff Frost shortly, and will post the transcript of my Q&A at that time.