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An exterior view of the Olympic Studios in Barnes, London, taken in 2008.
Olympic Sound Studios was a renowned independent commercial recording studio best known for the many rock, pop and sound stage recordings made during late 1960s onwards. It was a highly respected studio used by the music industry's rock and pop bands. The eclectic list of musicians who recorded there include the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Dave Mason, and the Beatles and the studios were considered as important as Abbey Road Studios. The studio's sound mixing desks became famous when the technology and design they pioneered was later manufactured commercially.
The first home of Olympic Sound Studios was in central London in the late 1950s. It was owned by Angus McKenzie who had purchased Larry Lyons's Olympia Studio in Fulham. McKenzie then took on a lease for a derelict synagogue situated at Carlton Street in London's West End.
In conjunction with Richard "Dick" Swettenham, McKenzie opened Olympic's Studio One with a valve-based recording console from the Olympia Studio. Swettenham designed the first professional transistorised desk in the world, which was installed into studio One during 1960, along with the first Four track tape recorder in England. The studio first came to prominence in 1958 when its senior sound engineer John Timperley recorded music which was listed in the music magazine Melody Makers top ten ratings. John Timperley's assistant was Roger Savage who quickly gained a reputation as a good sound balancer. In 1962 Terry Allen joined the company as an electronic engineer assisting Dick Swettenham with his new transistorised sound desk. Allen soon became studio manager and Timperley left the studios in late 1962 when Keith Grant was given the position of senior sound engineer. Another employee was Michael Ross-Trevor who eventually joined CBS Records at the start of a long career in classical music recording.
In 1966, after the lease on the Carlton Street premises was not renewed McKenzie sold his share of the business to Cliff Adams and John Shakespeare who moved the studios to Barnes under the guidance of Keith Grant. Grant oversaw the development of the new studios bringing in his father Robertson Grant as an architect.
Situated at 117 Church Road, the Barnes building was constructed in 1906 and known as Byfeld Hall, a theatre for the Barnes Repertory Company. In its first decade it was a venue associated with the bioscope, an early form of cinema combined with music hall and instrumentation. Between the 1930s and the post second world war era, it was a cinema. In the 1950s, the building became television production studios. Actors who played there included John Gielgud and Claude Rains.
In 1969, Grant commissioned his father to re-design studio Two as the now unexpectedly popular studio was causing problems with sound transmission to Studio One. Studio One, for example might be recording classical music by Elgar while Studio Two would be hosting sessions with the Rolling Stones. Robertson Grant successfully innovated a completely floating space weighing seventeen tons which was supported by rubber pads. The décor and furnishing of the new studio Two was designed by Mick Jagger. Later on, Grant added probably the first instant acoustic change, using rough sawn wooden slats which could cover or reveal sound-absorbing panels behind them and change the acoustic sound. This made the room suitable for the recording of both rock and orchestral music at the pull of a cord.
Olympic's sound mixing desks were a creation of the maintenance staff and built specially for the studios. They became known as Olympic desks and were developed by Dick Swettenham, Keith Grant and later Jim McBride in conjunction with Jim Dowler. Swettenham later started to manufacture the consoles commercially as Helios desks. The first desk of this type was commissioned by Grant as Helios One for studio Two. Olympic desks and their Helios spin off are still highly regarded for their sonic qualities today.
Virgin Music era
For many years copyright problems with the use of the word Olympic prevented the history of the studio from being more widely promoted, which became an important factor in its arch-rival Abbey Road Studios attracting greater recognition due to promotion by E.M.I.
In 1987, Virgin Music bought the studios and the property was refitted to a different practical and acoustic specification, further to consulting with Sam Toyoshima a Japanese studio builder who surprisingly declared the studio "unfit to record music in". Barbara Jefferies, then Studio manager for Virgin Music at Olympic Studios, instructed that the master tapes of the studio's vast library of recording sessions be discarded. The disposal of these tapes was unsecured they were put into skips outside the building, remaining there for days. Some were recovered by unassociated people and ended up as highly sought-after bootlegs. The re-vamped studio continued to attract many leading artists during the period of the 1990s and 2000s including Madonna and Björk.
In December 2008, the VirginEMI group announced that the long standing studio facilities would be closed and in February 2009 the studios closed.
New Olympic Cinema and Studio Complex
The London Evening Standard newspaper reported that a buyer for the building as a studio could not be found and it seemed likely that Olympic would lose its musical and cinematic history due to a development of flats and shops. After four years of closure, Olympic Studios re-opened on 14 October 2013 as a cinema with two screens, a café with dining room and a recording studio. The conversion of part of the original building to a small recording studio was undertaken by architect Robertson Grant and the acoustics completed by original studio sound staff member Keith Grant and Russel Pettinger. The new studio facility operates alongside the building's historical role as a cinema using Flare Audio cinema sound. The cinema also uses a Flare sound system.
Olympic is known for the quality of the recordings produced in its studios, and as a training ground for many successful producers, technicians and engineers, such as:
Roger Savage, who recorded the first Rolling Stones hit "Come On", before moving to Australia, where he became a highly successful engineer, then moving into post-production sound recording with his own company, Soundfirm, which has studios in Melbourne, Sydney, and Bejiing.