Memories of Levy's Sound Studios 1955-1961
MEMORIES OF LEVY’S SOUND STUDIOS 1955-1961
by BILL JOHNSON
Levy’s Sound Studios was one of very few recording studios outside the major record labels that were established in the thirties, a unique feature being their pressing factories they operated at Aston Clinton and Colnbrook. From these units they pressed their own labels Oriole and Embassy records, as well as taking in washing from an American label, Mercury, and also exporting discs to the far corners of the British Empire. They also owned a world-renowned record shop in Whitechapel. Alongside Star, Recorded Sound and Guy de Beir (subsequently renamed Advision), they pioneered an independent recording service for aspiring amateur and professional singers, solo musicians and orchestras.
I joined Levy’s in 1955 as a junior engineer and delivery boy (their being no couriers in those days). I was fifteen and had to get work due to my father’s earlier demise from cancer. He was an hotelier and ran Westminster Residential Service Suites at 59 Jermyn Street. Even though my mother took over the management when he died, it was clear that the post would not last forever.
I was always interested in photography, recording and my small bedroom in the hotel was littered with 8mm cine cameras, editing equipment, projectors, speakers, Scophony Baird tape recorder, sound mixer, grams and other paraphernalia. I decided a disc cutter would complete my equipment and my mother, being a generous soul and to make up for my father’s early death, decided to buy me one. They were not easy to find, but in one government surplus shop (a trade that abounded in those days) we found a pristine MSS mobile disc cutter with the magic letters BBC scorched into the heavy wooden carry case. It had been used by war correspondents in the field of battle. As you can imagine I was like a dog with two tails. Eventually I taught myself how to work it. This entailed a balancing act with the cutting head. Too little weight and the record would not play, too much and a sapphire cutting needle would grind itself through the lacquer surface into the aluminium base of the blank and be ruined. Also control of dynamic range and modulation of the cutter head ensured success or failure.
In Piccadilly Arcade, a stone’s throw from the hotel, was a modest recording outfit run by Guy Whetstone and Stephen Appleby, who later established Advision. They provided me with either relapped or new sapphire cutters as required. Both were long suffering and at 30 bob a sapphire (£1.50 in today’s money), extremely generous. We all became close friends as the years went by. As luck would have it this single bit of skill enabled me to begin my career in recording.
In my search for work I walked the length of Bond Street and finally, after much pacing outside, marched into Levy’s Sound Studios and asked to speak to the chief engineer. I was greeted by a bemused Jacques Levy who told me his chief engineer was busy but would he do. "Well", I said, "I need a job. I can make these", removing my best 78rpm acetate discs from my school satchel. "Would you be interested"? Mr Jacques, as he always liked to be addressed, got his linen tester out and looked at the groove formation and then played the records. Eventually he summoned forth chief recording engineer Ted Sibbick, a portly little man in a white coat who gave me the third degree. How had I come by these! Where did I find them and so forth. Finally after taking them both to my room in Jermyn Street they were convinced I had cut them myself and I got a job at £3.10s (£3.50) a week.
Ted Sibbick was an excellent teacher; a staunch Mason, he used to regale me with stories of when he was at the BBC during the war. "You know" he would say, "Our boys out there" – referring to MI6 – "were so efficient I used to get scripts of Hitler’s speeches six weeks ahead of a broadcast, and when they were relayed to me live from Caversham, the BBC monitoring Station, I had already worked out where the disc changes would be". On a less savoury note he mentioned finding, following a land mine attack on Broadcasting House, a policeman’s head complete with helmet on the window ledge of his dubbing room six stories up.
I began my apprenticeship with Levy’s, which was to last six years and ended up with my becoming their chief engineer. At first, of course, I did all the mundane stuff like make tea, deliver discs and sweep the studio floor. Mr Jacques liked a clean ship!
In the pre-war period as newsreels became popular, background libraries of specially recorded music emerged and Levy’s received its fair share of sessions mainly because they offered a unique advantage, a recording and pressing facility for 78rpm records. A one-stop shop so to speak.
Early background music labels like De Wolfe, Paxton, Chappell, Boosey & Hawkes and KPM all used Levy’s. Morris Levy, (Mr) Jacques’ elder brother, was then Studio Manager and the sole balance engineer. As I remember, re-mastering many of these catalogues over the years, there was a sort of rounded quality to his recordings which seemed to defy the laws of the technology of the day. Although not a trained musician, even I could appreciate the extremely well crafted balance of chord harmonies captured on his recordings right down to the double bass. Of course all studios have their own characteristics and these are shown up more if you wide mic or close mic. Much of the MGM scoring studio’s reputation was derived from using one microphone for the entire orchestra and an extremely sympathetic acoustic. Levy’s was a very live studio by today’s standards and separation was quite a challenge, so it took quite a degree of careful judgement to get the balance just right, as I was to learn later.
The recording equipment Morris used was really quite primitive and was still in use when I arrived in the fifties. There was a central 6-channel mixer, a big box of valves, without any equalisation, a secondary passive mixer that took the output of main mixer, and two Vortexion mixers purchased later. These were then fed into an equaliser with primitive top and bass controls connected to the mono tape recorder or disc cutter. Microphones consisted of BBC Marconi long ribbons and American and STD Cardoids. It was simple but the signal was clean and distortion free as a whistle.
Although I was not aware of it at the time but, a close friend throughout my life, Bernard Mattimore (a recording engineer with EMI), tells me there was no equalization at Abbey Road studios either. All equalisation was done in post production through a large box of Cooker Knobs known as a 'Curve Bender' which Abbey Road built. You sat in the Greenroom with the A&R man and perhaps the M.D. and you clicked away until they thought it sounded better! You had a sheet of paper designed to show all the knobs and their calibrations. You ticked off the settings and the sheet was put in the Master Tape Box and sent up for cutting. The cutting engineers all had 'Curve Benders'; having referred to the ticked-sheet, they set their 'box of knobs' likewise. At least they were supposed to, I knew some who didn't, and no one could tell after anyway!
All Classical lacquer masters were played before they went down to Hayes for processing. There appeared to be a constant war between the studio and the factory regarding quality, so this policy of 'It was all right when it left us', was adopted.
Levy’s never played lacquer masters for fear of the damage caused to the grooves by the application of steel needles to the soft lacquer. It only goes to show how the isolated islands of operation were interpreting by the emerging technology.
The Studio at 73 New Bond Street was built into what was once an art gallery. The room was roughly 40’x40’ and backed onto Dering Street. Below was a pub called the ‘Bunch of Grapes’ which became a haven for the recording community of the area in the late fifties. Bernard, who was now the manager of the HMV studio in Oxford Street, would join Stephen Appleby, Guy and Andy Whetstone from the newly formed Advision at 83, a few doors away in Bond Street. It was all very pleasant.
The acoustic engineers had built a soundproof shell within the gallery, all on a floating floor. Even the control room was within the shell. Above the control room was a void to the ceiling of the old art gallery. Here they had dumped old gear, redundant Brunswick recording lathes, several racks of transcription discs (16" x 33? rpm records the wartime precursor of LP’s) and the like. Science Museum cry your eyes out!
Originally sessions were recorded direct onto disc live. And, although I only have this by hearsay, it was not until (Mr) Jacques returned from Germany at the end of hostilities clutching a Magnetophon tape machine, which seemed to have fallen off a panzer wagon, did they convert to pre-recording on tape. (He was always a bit hush-hush about what he did in the war - as he was in business.) The machine ran at 30 ips and made a dickens of a noise as I remember. It used open sided European platters of quarter inch tape 3,250ft long. Many of these revolutionary devices had been captured by the advancing expeditionary forces during the war and distributed to allied countries for evaluation. Bing Crosby got his hands on one, created Ampex and the rest is history. The one we had still retained the secret rotating scrambler head used to transmit secret messages to agents in the field, as well as normal linear heads.
Because of my talent for disc cutting I was confined to the dubbing suites for several months at 101 New Bond Street with Ted Sibbick, opposite the Studio at 73. My initial work consisted of making 78rpm lacquers from the output of the studio; masters for onward processing at Aston Clinton and Colnbrook (their pressing plants); and transferring to disc amateur tape recordings which were increasing month on month.
Levy’s, with its unique ability to record and press independently of the majors, meant it had a healthy trade in work from many of the countries left over from the "Empire" - not least India and Africa. The Sheherazade Label based in Delhi used to send lacquers by the dozen, which I converted to pressing masters. It provided me with a useful Saturday job and welcome overtime - 50 sides a morning was my record!
There was also Melodisc, a West African label who recorded in the Studio most times. The various bands, colourful Rastafarians, brought in ornate musical instruments like talking drums, odd battered trumpets, bugles and guitars. Unfortunately, they did have a tiresome habit of blessing the session by sprinkling thick Black John Rum over (Mr) Jacques’ shiny parquet studio floor. We managed to sponge it off without offending the artistes and before it ate into the veneer.
It was not for several months after being employed that was I allowed to go into the Holy of Holy’s – The Control Room. Although the Magnetophon was still in position, but just used for winding tape, it had been replaced by an EMI BTR2, an enormous green machine that weighed a ton and took a day to line up.
Sessions were booked in by Mrs Friend who kept the diary. Certain days were pencilled out for Oriole or Embassy sessions; the balance was the luck of the draw. As you can imagine we received our quota of musical émigrés from Eastern Europe after WW2, mainly Jewish. (Mr) Jacques did not find their presence something he could tolerate and retired, so it gave me ample opportunity to learn to balance sound. Some of these highly excitable people would arrive with band parts expecting to find a full orchestra, hanging around in the studio, to play their stuff. They were disappointed more often than not and most of the time was spent placating them and ringing Maestro Mario, a singing teacher who occupied the top floor of 101, to request help from his accompanist. Eventually the lady came over and did what she could and another demo was committed to a treasured lacquered disc.
Levy’s, being independent and struggling to survive in a world that was beginning to be controlled by technology, were really not equipped financially or willing to accept the argument for increased investment from a business point of view.
When the ‘LP’ was introduced, and with it an all-singing and dancing disc recording machine from Denmark, the Lyrec SV8, which retailed at some $275,000 they were slow to accept the need. This was 1956 and when you compare what can be done today with a PC and DVD reader/writer to record both pictures and sound on a small plastic disc, which everyone can own for a few hundred pounds, then the advances in technology over the next 48 years can really be appreciated.
At first we all looked in envy as we were shown the demo model at the IBC studios in Portland Place just north of Broadcasting House. (Mr) Jacques, Ted and I were in awe of the bright blinking lights and all the functions. You could dial in the duration of the recording; it would set the level automatically, and sort out variable groove depth and width, based on a judgement of recording time and average recording modulation. It was a fail-safe machine and was the first example of how technology would soon take the artistry out of virtually everything we do today. We all secretly wished it had not been invented and hoped it would grind its cutter on its first recording assignment. We all knew that Levy’s could not afford one and so we scratched our heads and said, "we can do that".
Within a month we had fitted new motors to our Neumann lathe to run at 33? rpm. LP’s, unlike most of the 78’s produced hitherto, had two additional requirements - the groove had a variable depth to cope with the increased dynamic range of tape, and as a result the lead screw on the lathe had to run variably and independent of the turntable to accommodate the constantly changing groove width. This was to be compounded when stereo was introduced. With everything optimised you could then get up to 30 minutes per side on an LP.
If you do not have a locked-in calculator to sort this out then it needs to be done manually. So we loaded the front of the cutting head for the maximum depth and fixed a small coil spring to it with a piece of felt as a damper. The top of the spring was connected to a little screw which could be rotated to lessen the load on the cutter and set the minimum depth. So far so good! The variable drive for the lead screw was slightly less sophisticated. Ted found an old electric 78rpm gramophone motor and removed the turntable. We then fixed a 12" blank to the lead screw and let it rest on the motor’s hub. As there used to be a lever to adjust the gramophone motor’s speed we found that full speed equalled roughly a groove pitch of 50 microns and dead slow around 10 microns.
By setting two RGD tape playback machines side by side and running the tape though one machine as a pre listening device in advance of the head that was connected to the disc cutter’s amplifier, we got prior knowledge of when an orchestral piece was offering up a crescendo or pianissimo, so we could open up the groove width and increase depth. It was all a bit hairy - left hand on the depth control, right hand on the variable pitch device, but we were in business! And that simply is what we did at Levy’s for many years, producing countless LP’s for their own Oriole and Embassy labels as well as re-mastering background music libraries on LP. Copies of original 78 disc recordings were pressed in vinyl instead of shellac in order to minimise surface noise and dubbed onto tape then made up into albums and so on. Months were spent on dubbing background music catalogues to cope with the new technology. I even devised a method of turning mono into stereo by means of an 8-channel mixer with a panning control and the dextrous use of equalisation on each channel.
Eventually, I moved into programme production and tape editing for the shows they made for Radio Luxembourg, the main two being, "For you Madam" and "John Dark". Ex-BBC producer, Neil Tuson, directed both. The former was a magazine programme introduced by Peter West and included the live performances by Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra.
One notable programme included an interview with a hero of mine. I used to listen to AFN out of Stuttgart in 1950 and there was one DJ called Sgt Frank Batters (I think that is how the name is spelt) who always ended his broadcast by playing, Caterina Valente’s The Breeze and I. Lo and behold, as I edited the broadcast tape there he was, but regrettably I never met him.
John Dark was a Dick Barton sound-alike. Neil had created and produced Dick Barton for the BBC and when it was axed to make way for the Archers he took the idea to Luxembourg who picked it up with open arms. The name had to be changed for legal reasons. We used to record five episodes every Sunday, two in the morning and three in the afternoon. Notable artists included Paul Whitson Jones, Mary Wimbush and Jack May (later to be Nelson Gabriel in the Archers). Sometimes I did the studio spot effects like slamming doors or creating ghastly grinding noises while Dark was being interrogated by some evil power. Other times I was on the grams with backgound FX like wind, rain, thunder and an effect which I had to create from scratch - thousands of rats scrabbling to devour John Dark in a sewer. He always got away!
A great deal of recording was done outside the studio. My first trip was to Eastbourne to record Max Jaffa’s Palm Court Orchestra, later to be an LP released on Oriole. My first solo mobile recording was made at the Commonwealth Institute in Northumberland Avenue just off Trafalgar Square. A strange science fiction writer by the name of L. Ron Hubbard was to give a series of 8 one-hour lectures in one day on the subject of Scientology. This so called religion became quite notorious in the late 50’s and apparently the tapes are still revered today as his gospels.
Other locations included the Conway Hall (where a lot of background music was recorded without the consent of the Musicians’ Union), Wigmore Hall (where I spent many days secretly recording international artists’ own samplers), and Walthamstow Town Hall which had exceptional acoustics. The World Record Club recorded many easy-listening records there. They also produced a version of the musical My Fair Lady way before it hit London.
I became a close friend of Norman Lonsdale WRC MD, and his wife Fiona Bentley, who with Lord Aberdair and Cyril Ornadel (MD for Sunday Night at the London Palladium), began making independent productions. It was her vision that gave me my first break into writing scripts and producing children’s records. Some 90 were made in all using the cream of writers, like David Croft, (BBC "Dad’s Army" and "Hello Hello" writer/producer), musical directors that included John Gregory, Ken Jones, Bernie Fenton, Cyril Ornadel, and famous stars too numerous to mention. They sold throughout the world. I got to direct Ferdi Mayne, Vivien Leigh, Donald Wolfit, Roger Livesey, Bernard Miles, Jack Hulbert, Cicely Courtneidge, Jean Metcalfe, and many other big stars. Not bad for a kid of 19 eh!.
There was always a bit of tension between the two Levy brothers, Morris and (Mr) Jacques. It was to come to a head when I began balancing their economy Woolworth records that went out on the Embassy label. The trick was to find what was going to be top of the hit parade in the coming weeks and then make an exact, or, as they called it in the trade, "Chinese Copy" using local singers and musicians. Then get them into Woolworth’s at half the price of the real thing. We got it down to a fine art, recording on a Thursday and in the stores by the following Monday.
But Morris was not pleased with many of the results. Either the level on the disc was not sufficient or interpretation was not close enough. The truth was that the studio was now totally under-funded and the gear had seen better days. So many advancements had been made elsewhere that it was becoming impossible to compete. I secretly borrowed a limiter/compressor from a rival studio and without telling (Mr) J connected it to the disc-cutting suite. As I recorded the master discs for the factory, the limiter compressed the dynamic range and created a "wall of sound" enabling at least 8db additional level on the disc, and gave the recording a totally different feel. Morris was overjoyed but (Mr) Jacques and I were never to be close colleagues again and the situation got so volatile I had to leave the company in 1961.
Eventually both brothers had to concede that the studio needed re-equipping. This was accomplished by my successor Jeff Frost. But soon CBS, who had much of their output for British consumption pressed at Oriole Records over the years, decided that a takeover of the group (comprising Oriole and Embassy Records, their factories at Aston Clinton and Colnbrook, as well as Levy’s Sound Studios), would prove a sound business move.
They took the catalogue, the premises and the factories; but the talent and dedication, of Levy’s pioneers, had long gone. But that is another story!
Editor: Bill Johnson left the recording business in about 1965 and, even though he worked at many other Studios like Olympic, Lansdowne (as Dennis Preston's assistant) and built his own studio Ryemuse, he decided to move into business theatre productions and staging large presentations for people like Capital Radio and the Shaklee Corporation of America under his own company Magic Lantern. For two good examples of the ‘different’ sound achieved in the Levy Studios, listen to ‘Festive Days’ and ‘Bandstand’ on the new Guild CD "An Introduction to The Golden Age of Light Music".