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An exterior view of the Olympic Studios in Barnes, London, taken in 2008.
Olympic Studios is an early 20th-century building in Barnes, London, which, after four years of closure, re-opened on 14 October 2013 as the new home for the Olympic Studios cinema. As well as a two-screen cinema, the building includes a café and dining room, a members' club and a recording studio.
The building at 117 Church Road in Barnes was constructed in 1906 as Byfeld Hall, a theatre for the Barnes Repertory Company, and was a cinema for much of the first half of the century, before becoming a television studio in the late 1950s. In 1965 it was purchased by Olympic Sound Studios and became a renowned independent commercial recording studio, best known for the many legendary rock and pop recordings made there from the late 1960s onwards. It has been described as the "go-to studio for many of rock and pop's leading lights in the music industry's golden era, from the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix to Led Zeppelin and The Beatles", and as being of the same importance as Abbey Road Studios. The studio's sound mixing desks eventually became famous in their own right, and were later manufactured commercially.
The conversion from film to recording studio was undertaken by architect Robertson Grant and the acoustics completed by Keith Grant and Russel Pettinger. The studios won Music Week magazine's award for best recording studio five times. After forty years and a succession of owners, the studio's earlier facilities were closed by the EMI and Virgin Group in 2009. However, Olympic has now been converted into an independent local cinema incorporating reminders of its own history, including a new studio designed with the help of original members of the studio's staff. Also in line with its audio tradition, Olympic's cinema is now the only one in London employing a new form of state-of-the-art Flare Audio cinema sound.
After its earliest days, the building became a theatre briefly again in the 1920s: actors who played there included John Gielgud and Claude Rains. Between the 1930s and the postwar era, it returned to its original function as a cinema. In its first decade it was notable for being one of the venues associated with the bioscope, an early form of cinema combined with music hall and large instrumentation. In the 1950s the building became television production studios.
History of Olympic Studios
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 a lease on a derelict synagogue building at Carlton Street, off Baker Street in London's West End.
In conjunction with Richard "Dick" Swettenham, McKenzie opened Olympic's Studio One with a tube recording console from Olympia Studio. The studio first came to prominence in 1958; its senior sound engineer was John Timperley, who was responsible for a large number of recordings which made the top ten in the Melody Maker ratings. In 1962 Terry Allen joined the company as an electronic engineer, assisting Dick Swettenham with his new transistorised sound desk. John Timperley's assistant was Roger Savage, who quickly gained a reputation as a particularly good sound balancer. Terry Allen soon became studio manager and was instructed by Angus McKenzie to dismiss Timperley late in 1962. Keith Grant had worked at Olympic on a casual basis for some time, and was offered the position of senior sound engineer late in 1962. Dick 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.
Apart from Roger Savage, several other young staff gained their start at Olympic. Gus Dudgeon began as a tape operator and when he left Olympic became associated with Elton John, as his producer. Another successful employee was Michael Ross-Trevor, who eventually joined CBS Records, at the start of a long career in classical music recording.
After being notified in 1964 that the lease on the Carlton Street premises would not be renewed, in 1965 McKenzie sold his share of the business to Cliff Adams and John Shakespeare. They then moved it to new premises in Barnes, with the guidance of Grant, when the lease ran out in 1966. Keith Grant oversaw the development of the new studios, bringing in his father Robertson Grant, an architect, to assist.
In 1969 Grant again commissioned his father, this time to re-design Studio Two, as the now working and 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 thus change the acoustics. 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 famous 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 offspring are highly regarded for their sonic qualities today.
In 1987, Virgin Music bought the studios. After consulting with Sam Toyoshima, a Japanese studio builder who declared the studio "unfit to record music in", the property was refitted to a different practical and acoustic specification. 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 as they were put into skips outside the building and left for days, and some ended up as highly sought-after bootlegs. The studio continued to attract many leading artists during the period of the 1990s and 2000s, including Madonna and Björk.
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 behind the greater public recognition of its arch-rival Abbey Road Studios, which was promoted by EMI, over Olympic.
In December 2008, the VirginEMI group announced that the longstanding studio facilities would be closed, and in February 2009 the studios were confirmed closed. In the absence of any studio buyer, in the era of computer-based recording, it was at first thought Olympic would lose its musical and cinematic connection and be redeveloped as flats and shops. However, in 2013 a new smaller studio facility opened at Olympic, designed with the help of original members of the studio, and envisaged to continue operating alongside its original role as cinema, which has also recommenced in line with its history and with the help of studio staff, using the latest audio cinema techniques.
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.