Sound Techniques Limited, a highly influential London recording studio and electronics engineering firm, was founded by Geoff Frost and John Wood in December of 1964, and for more than the next decade, concluding in 1976, recorded arguably some of the best records of the era. Pink Floyd recorded there, as well as Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, Incredible String Band, The Pentangle, John Martyn, Beverley Martyn, Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy, Judy Collins, John Cale, The Yardbirds and The Who, to name only a few. The acoustics of the studio, based in an old brick dairy barn, were a major draw; but just as much so was the duo’s engineering brilliance. The innovative recording “desks” they designed and built were among the finest available in the recording industry.
The story of Sound Techniques is inextricably intertwined with the life of its co-founder and electronics expert Geoff Frost, who at 75 is still active as an evangelist of the company’s history and mission.
A fascination with electronics from the beginning
For almost the entirety of Geoff Frost’s life, music and its recording have been key interests. He received an HMV windup gramophone when he was about ten. His father, who was secretary of the London Philharmonic, used to bring him records to play on it. He called that 78 rpm machine “the love of my life.” When he was about twelve or thirteen – when 45 rpm records began coming out – he modified the gramophone so that it would slow down to play 45 rpms. But when he first placed the needle on the wax, the heavy stylus literally ground into the grooves. And so he designed a replacement needle for the device that worked quite well. It was really his first experience modifying music equipment. Soon after, he decided to sell records out of his parents’ postal/woolens shop in the Shepherds Bush section of West London, and became quite proficient at reselling them.
Geoff always had an interest in recording music. As a youngster, his aunt gave him ₤50 which he used that to buy a “kit of parts” from a shop called “Premier Radio.” He used those components to build a working recorder, to which he later added a microphone. With this equipage he practiced recording his own “newscasts”. Eventually, Geoff wanted to attend university and study radio theory, but no such sequence was offered at that time. His father identified what he thought was a suitable school, Faraday House in London’s Holborn section; but since it specialized in a different aspect of engineering, Geoff left after a year. Losing his academic deferment, Geoff was called up for the National Service. He took four weeks of basic training and was then posted to one training unit in Catterick, North Yorkshire – a radio unit – which he thoroughly enjoyed. As such, his desire for knowledge was more than satisfied at Catterick. Not only that, the chefs of that unit were training for service on the Royal Yacht, so the quality of food was exceptional.
After three months, there was a big exam, and Geoff and his colleagues were told that any of them who got over 95% on it could choose his own posting. Geoff received 98½ %, but was denied his first posting – Christmas Island – and instead wound up at Signal School, also in Yorkshire, where he served as Lance Corporal and as instructor of its electronics laboratory, complete with “fantastic” equipment. However, his students had not yet arrived. He and the other two instructors were told by the commanding officer it would be six to nine months before students came; so they were asked what they might like to do in the interim. Geoff said he wanted to research and build transistor amplifiers. The government agreed to pay for his books, parts and other test equipment and would allow him to set up his own research project. He spent the next nine months “blowing up amplifier equipment.” This gave Geoff an admittedly wonderful grounding in recording technology.
One of the students who arrived there, a “madman” named Captain Acass, was working on a new technique for amplifying and recording sound. His experiments were conducted on “breadboards” packed with components – mainly valves with some transistors – and what he was attempting to do was digitize the first analogue/digital converter, which in turn would be attached to a speaker. But Geoff really wasn’t interested in it because he felt it sounded “awful.” However, it was considered valuable for military purposes because if a signal from a walkie talkie is digitized, it’s very easy to encode or encrypt, making it very secure.
Some of the important details Geoff learned in the lab involved the working of valves; how to calculate a value of a capacitor that went around the valve; signal generators, oscilloscopes, etc. When he left the Army, he had obtained a “brilliant grounding” in electronics which really wasn’t available anywhere else. Halfway through his National Service, Geoff’s “Victorian Aunt” gave him a considerable sum of money. He used those funds to buy three things: a Vortexion tape machine, a Vortexion mixer, and a Film Industries M8 ribbon microphone – followed later on by another M8 ribbon and an STC 4033 Cardioid composite microphone (the latter, dangled on the end of a boom, was of the variety used by the BBC – see above). Geoff used his equipment to record, among other things, a military dance band that was situated next door to him during the remainder of his National Service. That’s when he began to learn about proper microphone placement.
Getting to work
When Geoff left the army and got back to London, he started looking for a job. He applied both to ATV (Associated Television) and the BBC and received an offer from the latter. The only “problem” Geoff encountered was that he was assigned to a vision crew when he instead desired to be on the radio crew – but there were no openings in that crew at that time. Geoff subsequently found himself spending most of his time in the BBC’s “gallery” (where you were allowed to smoke) and eventually managed to appreciate very much the vision aspect of the broadcasting business. After two years at the BBC, he left because he was getting more heavily into the vision aspect, and still wished to work with a sound crew. His salary at that time was ₤11 per week.
Soon thereafter, Geoff spied an advertisement in the Evening Standard for chief engineer for a record company in New Bond Street called Oriole Records – together with its budget Embassy label. An independent UK recording company, Levy’s began life in the late twenties in Whitechapel. Levy’s specialized in early gramophones and records; however, to supplement their income, they also sold sewing machines and rented bicycles. Geoff waited three weeks before he interviewed by Maurice and Jacques Levy, the firm’s proprietors. He initially requested ₤17 per week but the Levy’s kindly counter-offered ₤20 for the same period. At Levy’s his official title was chief engineer; but he also became involved in building recording equipment.
Though the shop didn’t have the most advanced recording technology (they had Vortexion units similar to what Geoff already owned), Geoff got on well with Maurice Levy who suggested that Geoff design a bigger mixer for the shop. He set off to build his unit with components collected from boxes placed on the pavement by downstairs shops located on the same street as Levy’s. Interestingly, the second floor rooms were all brothels, and so one had to make his way past “girls in skimpy outfits and cheap perfume” to get to the parts. Unfortunately, once Geoff built the mixer, it didn’t work, but Mr. Levy, upon hearing this, was most understanding – thoughtfully inquiring if Geoff had instead learned something, and adding that he wasn’t troubled about the expense. It made an important and positive impression on Geoff – one he would carry with him throughout his career.
In Part II, Sound Techniques is born and an interview with Geoff Frost