MEMORIES OF LEVYS SOUND STUDIOS 1955-1961
by BILL JOHNSON
Levys 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 Levys 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 fathers
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 fathers 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 stones 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 todays 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 Levys 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 Hitlers 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 policemans head complete with helmet on the window
ledge of his dubbing room six stories up.
I began my apprenticeship with Levys,
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 Levys 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 Levys.
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
studios reputation was derived from using one microphone
for the entire orchestra and an extremely sympathetic acoustic.
Levys was a very live studio by todays 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
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.
Levys 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
40x40 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
33⅓ rpm records the wartime precursor of LPs)
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.
Levys, 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 Holys
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
Levys, 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
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 Levys 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 33⅓ rpm. LPs,
unlike most of the 78s 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 motors hub. As there
used to be a lever to adjust the gramophone motors
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 cutters 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 Levys for many years, producing countless LPs
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 Valentes 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
Jaffas 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 50s
and apparently the tapes are still revered today as his
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
childrens records. Some 90 were made in all using
the cream of writers, like David Croft, (BBC "Dads
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 Woolworths 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
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 Levys Sound Studios), would
prove a sound business move.
They took the catalogue, the premises and
the factories; but the talent and dedication, of Levys
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".