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Jim Marshall, innovator and developer of some of the most iconic (and powerful) amplification equipment in the history of modern music, died April 5 at the age of 88. Born in 1923, Mr. Marshall grew up in London of modest means (his parents sold fish and chips) and early in his life worked variously in a  scrap-metal yard, a jam factory and a shoe shop. But, having failed his draft physical during World War II, he took a job that would change his life – at an engineering firm – while he simultaneously devoured engineering texts on his own. An accomplished drummer himself, Marshall supplemented his engineering income by teaching drumming to students – which at one point numbered sixty-five.

The profits from his teaching permitted him to buy a music shop in Hanwell, London, where one of his first employees was Ken Bran, whom Marshall hired as an engineer. Bran suggested that they build their own amplifiers, and brought in another engineer, Dudley Craven, to help them. They issued their first amplifier in 1962, and its sound became known as the “Marshall Crunch.”

Marshall had always been complimentary of the Fender amplifier, which at the time he created his own brand in 1960 was the prevailing amplification device for country/western and jazz artists – and which produced a “clean” and warm but quiet sound. However, Marshall, for his part, sought to cater to a new generation of musicians who played rock-n-roll and who were looking for a bigger, louder, rougher and more “fuzzy” sound. His success in this sense has made Marshall the amplifier of choice for world-class rock-n-roll artists to this day.

The Who’s Pete Townshend, another Marshall evangelist, told Marshall he wanted a system “as big as an atom bomb” which would be as “powerful as a machine gun.” As he recalled in one interview, “Pretty soon, by accident, I discovered the Gibson SG (guitar) … and because I was using a mix of Sound City (later Hiwatt) and Marshall amplifier stacks, I landed the Live at Leeds sound that stayed with me almost all the way on from there—at least onstage.”  

Though Marshall had worked closely over the years with musicians such as Townshend, Roy Orbison, Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Guns and Roses guitarist Slash to name only a few, he reserved his most affectionate praise for Jimi Hendrix, whom he considered “our greatest ambassador, without a doubt,” as well as the greatest guitarist ever. There was a story Marshall often told about Hendrix coming into his shop in 1967 just prior to the release of his smash album Are You Experienced. At the time, Marshall just considered him “another American chap wanting things for free.” But Hendrix was adamant that he wanted to pay full retail price and proceeded to buy four stage setups – the so-called Marshall “stacks.”

Chris Hartman

Eric M. Howlett, demonstrating the LEEPvr System in Las Vegas, 1980. Courtesy, leepvr.com

This past December 11th saw the passing, at age 84, of an innovator of so-called “Virtual Reality,” Eric Mayorga Howlett. Mr. Howlett was a life-long inventor and entrepreneur in the area of optical and electronic engineering. His creation of the Large Expanse Extra Perspective or “LEEP” system was a dramatic development in optics, becoming popularly known as Virtual Reality – though in engineering circles, it was more commonly referred to as “Virtual Environment” – as it was essentially a computer-simulated environment. The term is attributed to polymath Jaron Lanier, co-founder of VPL Research – the first company to sell Virtual Reality goggles and gloves and a pioneer in 3-D computer graphics.

Jaron Lanier, co-founder of VPL Research - a competitor, and ultimately a client of Howlett's LEEP, Ltd. Courtesy, The Guardian (U.K.)

Howlett, who grew up in Miami, was a prodigy in mathematics and science. In 1944, during his senior year in high school, he was selected in the Westinghouse (Now Intel) Science Talent Search – one of only forty students in the country to be so chosen. As a recipient of this award, he had the opportunity to visit the White House, where he met the then First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Grumman Aircraft offered him a full scholarship to the university of his choice, whereupon he selected M.I.T. After a short time in the Navy, he achieved his physics degree. During the 1950s, he worked at M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory and General Electric, where he specialized in early warning radar and other electrical systems for military application.

Development of the LEEP System

In the intervening years and contemporary with the launching of the LEEP device, Howlett had been working in high-quality photography equipment. He developed a wide-angle stereoscopic photography system consisting of a viewer and a matching camera to make pictures to view. A patent for it was issued in 1983. They had seventy early orders for it, but only completed twenty as manufacturing the cameras was too complex for Howlett’s bare-bones staff. Howlett knew that he couldn’t raise the $100 million corporations such as Kodak and Polaroid would spend, and he tried to interest each of them in his technology. Both rather unceremoniously declined.

After the ill-fated Polaroid presentation, Howlett began to compare himself to Chester Carlson, who at the time was likewise trying to get companies (and investors) excited about his new invention, xerography:

“After Polaroid I was comparing myself to Chester Carlson as he trekked around the country trying to interest people in some cockamamie thing called “xerography” that his company, “Haloid” or “Haloid Xerox” was developing.”

The NASA VIVED (Virtual Visual Environment Display), which used the LEEP system viewers. Courtesy, http://www.leepvr.com

However, NASA expressed an interest in the viewers that accompanied the cameras. One of their engineers came by Howlett’s  offices in Waltham, Mass. (at the old Waltham Watch factory) and was impressed with the quality of the images and immediately placed an order, after which NASA became one of Howlett’s best customers. These units were to become the NASA VIVED (Virtual Visual Environment Display). Howlett was also able to sell similar units to Disney – though they were never widely produced. The prices for the the devices based on their features ranged between $840 and $3,500. The engineer also told Howlett that they should supply their competitor, Lanier’s VPL Research (who NASA also had a contract with), with the viewers, because VPL had a contract to build devices for NASA’s VIEWS (Virtual Interface Environment Work Station) project. When Howlett found out that NASA was having these units built at their competitor, he called NASA and was told that they would pay $10,000 at least per unit of a head-mounted virtual reality system. This precipitated the development of Howlett’s “Cyberface” system.

Cyberface (1989)

The original Cyberface system. Courtesy, leepvr.com

The Cyberface system went through a series of updates, which variously improved the quality of the pictures, and the ease of its use and portability. With the advent of LEEP Cyberface, Eric Howlett became the first to offer a commercial head-mounted display. As it was developed through the Cyberface2 and Cyberface3 models, resolution of images continued to improve, and the entire system was made for the wearer to move more efficiently, and, ultimately, to make the experience more and more realistic.

Cyberface4 and Virtual Orbiter

Created in 1996, the fourth incarnation of the Cyberface system, the Virtual Orbiter, convincingly delivered the effect of floating through space as an untethered spacewalker.  Cyberface4 forms the nucleus of this device, which offered still higher resolution than its predecessor, the Cyberface3.

The Virtual Orbiter was conceived as a standalone, Virtual Reality experience. Its display was supported on one’s arm, permitting the user to look freely in every direction in their virtual environment. The Virtual Orbiter initially revealed the Earth as it appeared from 20,000 miles above, moving to within 200 miles, then back, allowing the “space walker” to acquire a virtually unique perspective – a vantage point previously available only to space travelers.

As a bittersweet coda to this tale, Eric Howlett, though seeing the significant benefits of his innovations, never fully realized the rewards of his work. He had lost his home in an effort to finance his dreams; but remained undaunted to the last that what he was doing was both important and ahead of its time. With his passing, his son Alex (likewise a talented electronics engineer)  is trying to now market LEEP to the gaming community – fertile ground for such advanced, realistic technology. Though it remains to be seen if he will ultimately be successful, there is no question that his father’s research advanced both the argument for, and the technology of Virtual Reality, to the betterment and enjoyment of society.

As J.M. Lawrence succinctly noted in Howlett’s January 15, 2012 obituary in the Boston Globe,

“Toiling in the basement of his Newton home in the 1980s, virtual reality pioneer Eric M. Howlett solved a key problem in the quest to experience far-flung and potentially dangerous places without ever leaving a comfortable chair.”

-Chris Hartman

Boston's Vilna Shul Synagogue. Courtesy, scratchmm.com

Author’s Note: Though not dealing in particular with the history of high tech or venture capital, the annual Venture Capital Panel held at Boston’s historic synagogue, Beacon Hill’s Vilna Shul, is nevertheless an important event on the calendar of Boston’s high tech community. The panel was preceded by a 45-minute networking session, and was followed by a short question-and-answer period.

I have covered this discussion for a few years now, and it always is enlightening as both a retrospective on the previous year and as a forecast of the coming twelve months. To that end, I have included selective responses from the panelists. This particular group, moderated by the Boston Globe’s Scott Kirsner (author of its “Innovation Economy” column), included the following participants:

Rob Go, NextView Ventures
Jonathan Seelig, Globespan Capital Partners
Jo Tango, Founder & Partner, Kepha Partners
Fred Destin, Partner, Atlas Ventures

Panel moderator Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe. Courtesy, ScottKirsner.com

Scott Kirsner started off the discussion with a soul-searching, two-part request of the panelists: Your greatest satisfaction in investing, as well as your biggest regret in passing on an investment.

Jonathan Seelig responded that his biggest regret was not investing in Hub Spot, a Boston-based Internet marketing firm. He mentioned also that he originally hails from Vancouver, Canada, and during one trip there saw a queue outside a retailer called LuluLemon Athletica, a manufacturer and retailer of yoga-inspired athletic wear. He wanted originally to invest in it but hedged. It went on to be wildly successful and is based all over the United States and Canada.

He then added he was very proud to have been an original investor in ZipCar, a successful car-sharing company based in the Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts area. He sits on its board and is pleased about its profitability and other accomplishments.

Rob Go of NextVentures. Courtesy, Cyberposium.com

Rob Go mentioned his biggest regret was passing on investing in Groupon, the Internet coupon site which has basically become an Internet phenomenon. However, he took great satisfaction from investing in SkillShare, a New York City-based company where professionals share their expertise on just about any topic through a remote-learning model.

Scott Kirsner then inquired as to what the biggest story in venture capital for 2011 was. Rob Go responded that he thought the IPO for LinkedIn, the professional networking site which, on the day of its opening (May 26) was worth a reported $9 billion, was the most significant story of 2011.

Globespan Capital Partners' Jonathan Seelig. Courtesy, Crunchbase.com

Jonathan Seelig said he thought the most important factor was that there was over $8 billion raised for new businesses last year – and that the trend lately has been that the amount of money available for venture investing has doubled each of the past four years. That would indicate we are in a healthy investment period.

Jo Tango mentioned that the diversification of duties of venture capitalists was a significant development. He stated that the recent recession had forced VCs to be more creative and inventive in their business dealings.

Scott Kirsner next asked a broad question about notable trends in Boston-based venture capital. Is the region on the upswing? Rob Go asserted that there was a shift of focus on the part of Boston-area investors toward New York City. He said that this started in 2007-8, coinciding with the most recent economic downturn. He suggested that New York City was a more insular investment community and this, together with the fact that they have a lot of money, allows them to be more selective about making the best deals.

Fred Destin of Atlas Ventures. Courtesy, The Telegraph (U.K.)

Fred Destin said he thought that Boston needs to be more aggressive and active in venture investment. Talent from Boston-area firms is too often lured away. Boston needs to be more aspirational in its approach to venture capital. He next suggested that so-called “angel investing” (definition), which he and Atlas specialize in, should contain multiple platforms – allowing for small start-up companies to not be overlooked in the investment process. He added that some might require only between, say, $2 million and $3 million to “get them across the finish line.”

Jonathan Seelig clarified the term “angel investor” by asserting one needed to have started or run a company that gives a good money cushion for investment. He mentioned that Silicon Valley has an advantage over theBoston area in this sense because there are exponentially more individuals who are in that position. He closed by saying angel investment was the “social currency of the region”; that is, angel investors are often guided by a sense of social or cultural responsibility.

Scott Kirsner followed up with a question about what particular sectors the panelists invested in. Fred Destin said that he was not “thematic” in any sense with regard to his own investments, and that as an angel investor, he was open to different vehicles.

Kepha Partners' Jo Tango. Courtesy, Bizjournals.com

Jo Tango said that his preferred genre of investment was “data mobility” – (Companies he’s invested in include StreamBase Systems, Vertica Systems, and Virtual Iron; he was also involved in Ask Jeeves (now Ask.com), Digital Market, and NextCard).

Rob Go is focused largely on education and education delivery systems. As mentioned previously, he invested in SkillShare; but has always been interested in the media, technology, and entertainment sectors – as well as the intersection of K-12 consumer-directed education and eCommerce. He suggested this area lends itself to intuition; that is “you’re rowing and you can’t see land; but you can tell where the currents are moving.”

Jonathan Seelig noted that it was a difficult question for him. He finds influence of social networking sites “interesting”; but really believes that purchasing decisions as influenced by “friends” is more complex that it appears on its face. Social media does provide a “framework for influence” that’s quite subtle and where connections are not obvious.

Scott Kirsner asks “What’s the mood with consumer internet startups”? Rob Go suggested that these consumer internet startup companies, of all funding levels, have a long way to go before their potential is realized; but that the “wind is at our back.” (For instance, companies like Zynga, Groupon, Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare are examples of sophisticated and well-funded consumer internet startups). He added that in typical education investments, an investor should know the intricacies involved in navigating school districts. The profile of such an investor is quite different than your usual software engineer. It is difficult to make money efficiently in this investment area – school districts are not analogous or compatible as to their own needs. They have little interest in other school districts.

In closing, I’d note that happily, Vilna Shul was filled to capacity that evening. There were 170 reservations placed through social media, and the networking session beforehand, from my own perspective, was very beneficial (and fun!) Every year I’ve gone to these panels, they have been thoughtfully sponsored by Goodwin Procter law firm in downtown Boston. They have been a great friend of these events, and very much deserve a mention. And of course, Doug Levin, who capably organizes all of the panels (in addition to running his own start up) is the steady hand who makes it all possible.

Chris Hartman

From a 1986 documentary series on PBS called “The Entrepreneurs.” Steve Jobs articulates his own vision for NeXT, the company he started after being forced out of Apple Computer a year prior.

The opening scene has the eminent designer Paul Rand (designer of logos for IBM, Westinghouse, UPS, etc.) unveiling the logo he created for NeXT. Design was a great passion of Jobs’, and he wanted this company to make an important statement in that regard right from the beginning.

Much of the subsequent footage is taken at two NeXT retreats at California’s Pebble Beach – the first taking place 90 days after NeXT was started, and the second three months hence. Jobs presides at his ever-present whiteboard and probes and challenges during these freewheeling discussions with his colleagues, many of whom followed him from Apple.

The “Reality Distortion Field” that Jobs’ made (in)famous is boldly on display here. The first instance shows the staff pushing back on Jobs because they are determined the original 18-month deadline for shipping the first NeXT units is unrealistic. The college market, where NeXT’s computer is being positioned, has put pressure on the company to keep the price at no more than $3,000.

Jobs’ hard-edged instincts as a businessman lead him to assert that missing the Summer, 1987 deadline for college purchases would delay their educational computer for another year – thereby wreaking havoc in the company. Jobs’ chief concerns involved not selling enough units to meet operating costs, and falling behind technologically by the time the units actually do ship. The dreaded talk of “spending cuts” also enters the conversation.

At one point, Jobs is overtaken by a stream of consciousness, issuing forth an entrepreneurial soliloquy about his own start-up philosophy that would make Hamlet blush:    

“I forgot how hard it is to start a company … it’s A LOT of work. And … you’ve got to do everything: you have to come up with a name, you have to come up with a logo … I mean, in addition to designing the product, you’ve got to figure out what you want to design, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to get it to the marketplace, you’ve got to do a part number system, you’ve got to go get bank accounts, you’ve got to set up charts, general ledgers, a management information system, get a little kitchen set up, get a coffee maker, ALL THIS STUFF!”

NeXT wound up being purchased by Apple around the time Jobs triumphantly returned to the latter as “iCEO” in 1997, and the technology NeXT developed was ultimately incorporated into Apple’s OS X operating system. But here, in this brief snapshot, you get a bold-faced look at the urgency Jobs felt to make his “next” act successful, and you experience that pure, undistilled passion he had for what he was trying to accomplish.

Chris Hartman

Jonathan Rotenberg

This is a personal account, by Boston native Jonathan Rotenberg, about the day in 1981 he met Steve Jobs, who with Steve Wozniak was in town to attend “Applefest ’81,” a computer show Jonathan organized as a prodigious 18 year old. Rotenberg, who currently resides in Los Angeles, has a long history in computing. When he was only 13, he co-founded Boston’s Computer History Society. He is now President of Centriq Advisors, a management consulting firm for the high tech industry. Below I quote Jonathan’s account in its entirety. It’s remarkable for the humanity and kindness Jobs exhibited that day – particularly to young Jonathan.

Click here to check out Jonathan’s Facebook page and his blogging on life in L.A., a variety of issues relating to technology, spirituality, creativity and business.

“On June 6, 1981, a very kind man named Bob Washburn (Northeast Regional Sales Manager of Apple Computer Inc.) made a dream come true for an 18-year old semi-geek named Jonathan Rotenberg. Bob convinced the cofounders of his company, Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak, to be keynote speakers at a computer show I organized in Boston called Applefest ’81.

“Applefest was the first Apple-specific computer show ever, and was the platform from which IDG (International Data Group) later launched something called Macworld Expo.

In this photo, taken that steamy Saturday afternoon at Boston’s Park Plaza Castle, the 26-year-old Steve J. is standing next to his just-launched Apple III. Little did Steve realize at this particular moment just how much the pimply 18-year-old Kid actually knew about him. The Kid had researched Steve in meticulous detail.

“Weeks before, the Kid had been in intense conversations with one of Boston’s top chefs, Odette Berry of Another Season restaurant (the location today of Lala Rokh on Beacon Hill). Odette and he (me) planned an exquisitely stylish and innovative seven-course, all-vegetarian dinner for Saturday night. Odette developed each recipe from scratch specially for Steve Jobs. With a warm and gentle British accent, she said: ‘Mind you, now, this won’t be any “hippie vegetarian” dinner. Each course will be extremely elegant and unique.’

Lala Rokh restaurant (previously Another Season), Mt. Vernon Street, Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood.

“In 1981, a lot of teenagers idolized Blondie or Mick Jagger. That Saturday evening at Another Season, this 18-year-old found himself sitting in the presence of his greatest childhood hero. As the dinner began, the 26-year old may have had a hunch that, in this Kid, he had found someone who could appreciate his extraordinarily high standards. (FYI, six years later–after leaving Apple and founding NeXT and Pixar–Steve would say, in a biting, caustic phone voice: ‘You know, Jonathan, you can be an ANAL RETENTIVE JERK sometimes!’ Part of understanding Steve is knowing that ‘anal retentive jerk’ can be understood as an expression of esteem by one perfectionist to another …)

“The dinner guests seated around the table included the technology editor of the Wall Street Journal, Dick Schaffer; the publisher/founder of Inc. magazine, Bernie Goldhirsh; and the technology reporter of the Boston Globe. Each of the seven courses was crafted from fragrant, brilliantly colorful, just-picked spring vegetables. The guests seemed impressed. But the 18-year-old–so determined to raise himself to the soaring, monumental standards of the master–had something else up his pimply sleeve … He knew a truth about Steve that almost no one knew then. Many people knew that Steve had been a fruitarian for a number of years. But what virtually NO ONE knew was that Steve’s favorite fruit was NOT the apple; it was the strawberry.

“Odette had designed each course of the dinner to include a unique, innovative strawberry element within it. The 18-year old sat across the table, facing the 26-year-old master. A waiter appeared with the first course: a beautifully-designed glass platter made from a highly-polished mirror with gorgeous, ever-so-lightly prepared, gigantic strawberries, arranged like a work-of-art on the mirror. The 18-year old peered across the table and saw a grin appear on the face of the master. ‘We heard that you like strawberries,’ the Kid said. ‘Doesn’t everyone like strawberries?’ he replied, with a happy, boyish laugh. He then slid a large portion of the platter onto his plate …

“After dinner, I invited the guests to my parents’ townhouse on Beacon Hill for liqueurs and biscotti. As we walked up Mt. Vernon Street after dinner, it was close to the summer solstice. The setting Spring sun illuminated the gentle colonial brick townhouses, trees, and gas lamps of Beacon Hill. I had been waiting all day to to find an appropriate time to speak with Steve about the future of Applefest. As we walked together, I shared with him some challenges we had been struggling with in our collaboration with Apple’s marketing department. Steve put his arm around my shoulder and seemed to listen intently. He then reached into his jacket and pulled out a small leather box. ‘Here, Jonathan, I want to give this to you.’ (The box, I later discovered, contained a pure gold pen with the full-color Apple logo on its clip). After some further conversation, he said: ‘Jonathan, Could you call my assistant next week? I’d like to fly you out to California, so that we can sit down and talk about this.’

“There is a saying that ‘when the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ On June 6, 1981, the most important teacher of my lifetime appeared.”

-Chris Hartman

An early advertisement for Sound Techniques Studio. Courtesy, Sound on Sound

At Levy’s, and dreaming of starting a recording studio

Geoff Frost has called Levy’s essentially a “jobbing” studio; that is, anything and everything, including sound effects, was recorded there. Geoff had been Chief Engineer at Levy’s since 1959 while associate John Wood had joined the staff in 1962. The decision to start their own venture was prompted partly because Geoff and John wanted to be their own bosses and partly because Maurice Levy had just sold the firm to U.S. recording industry giant CBS Records, leaving the pair with some uncertainty about their future employment. Though a meticulous and technically astute pair, there interestingly was no great forethought in their decision to leave.

John Wood later reminisced: “We decided we’d start a recording studio, and with that wonderful ignorance is bliss mentality, impetuousness of youth, we thought we’d just get on and do it and do a better job than Levy’s … so Geoff left in September [1964] and started looking for premises and that was it!”

Though in no way a guarantee of success, the variety of complementary skills that Geoff (then aged 28) and John (aged 24) possessed had helped ensure that Sound Techniques Chelsea (S.T.C.) had a solid footing for future success. In his role as Chief Engineer at Levy’s, Geoff had assumed the lead technical role in building and maintaining the studio’s equipment in addition to overseeing engineering sessions. Wood meanwhile had apprenticed with Decca Records, and his editing of classical recordings had finely tuned his ear for the more subtle inflections of folk and folk rock recordings.

To finance their venture, Geoff Frost secured a loan with Barclays Bank and the company was officially registered in December 1964, after a name for the company had been chosen during a “swift but inspired telephone conversation” between Wood and Frost. John Wood remembers:

“Geoff rang me up from Peter Godfrey’s office, who was our solicitor, saying, ‘We’ve got to have a name for the company!’ … and I’m sitting in the control room at Levy’s, and there’s a Pultec on the rack and an Altec compressor and I see Pulse Techniques underneath Pultec so I said ‘Well, what about Sotec or Sound Techniques?’, and that’s literally where our name came from. And it was a great name! The biggest mistake we made was not registering it across the world!”

At the time Frost joined Levy’s in 1959, the studio’s basic control equipment comprised two Vortexion 4-way mixers, a passive two way mixer, an EMI BTR2 and a Tannoy 15” dual concentric speaker in a Lockwood cabinet. But as the years went on, and through Frost’s persistence, both the quantity and quality of equipment they installed improved greatly.

Their experience at Levy’s encouraged Frost and Wood to hone the technical skills that would prepare them to both design and build mixing desks – not only for S.T.C. but for other studios around the world. To quote Frost: “We never started out to manufacture mixers for anyone other than ourselves … It came as a bit of a surprise when people saw the first desk at Chelsea and said ‘this sounds great, can you make one for us?’”

As far as the studio’s configuration and acoustics were concerned, Frost and Wood had the benefit of a journey Geoff made to an American studio earlier in 1964. As Frost recalled:

“I got on a plane to Nashville to look at the American studios to find out why they got such better sounds than the English studios … There was an incredible difference in the sound. American stuff was open, it was loud – the stuff from British studios was very sort of twee and dull. The sound coming out of America, particularly from Bradley’s, really impressed me personally. So the first thing I did when we got off the plane was, after finding a hotel, I knocked on Bradley’s door and said, ‘I’m a chief engineer from London, is it possible for your chief engineer to show me ‘round?’ And they said, ‘Well, of course!’ And Bradley’s was by the far the most impressive studio I saw and just the kind of studio that John and I wanted to build.”

The perfect blend of acoustics and equipment

One of the most important revelations Geoff took away from his visit to Bradley’s was that the acoustics weren’t anything like those of English studios, where the idea was to make everything sound “as dead as possible.” Bradley’s had a very alive and powerful sound from their plain walls and very high ceilings. The Nashville studio also had very minimal equipment. The English had, for the longest time, been going in a mistaken direction to achieve an “American” sound by adding more equipment. Frost remembers:

“Bradley’s had a very simple desk – I think it was an ex-broadcast desk – a Bendix or a Gates or something like that and they had outboard EQs – they had Langevins and all the Langevins were locked in at 3k 8db boost position and left there!”

In December of 1964, Frost and Wood opened their new studio off the King’s Road at 46a Old Church Street, Chelsea. Notably, it was one of the earliest independent sound recording studios in the U.K. Housed in an old dairy, the studio closely resembled a garage with a cobbled floor. The floor had a gentle slope towards an elevator at the far end. The slope was originally there to drain off the water when cows were hosed down. Interestingly, the studio was on the first floor of what Frost termed “a Victorian milking parlor!”

In order to achieve a “Bradley’s type sound,” a team of builders was recruited to modify the studio space. An eighth of an inch of asphalt was laid on the floor to dampen the sound to an extent (another Nashville tip), then covered with carpet, though the original gradual slope from the dairy days was left as it was, which Frost and Wood felt possibly contributed to the room’s unique sound. And, while pursuing the best possible acoustics, Frost recalled:

“John and I went around clapping our hands, and we’d say, ‘Ooh, we need something up there!’ but bearing in mind we were so short of money, we did as little as possible! Underneath the office, we left the old fashioned lathe and plaster ceiling which did great things for strings.”

Another critical factor that made a studio’s sound unique was reverb (an electronically produced echo effect) – whether from echo chambers or plates. At S.T.C., Wood tweaked their reverb plates masterfully. Before the era of excessive multi-track recording, a recording room’s contours were paramount. S.T.C.’s high ceiling in the middle, the space under the office on the right hand and other logistical factors provided the natural spillage amongst microphones that made possible the studio’s unique sound. These factors are subtle, but to sound professionals and ultimately the listening public, also indispensable. For instance, strings and rhythm sections were typically placed in the center of the room under the high section of the ceiling, again using the particular idiosyncrasies of the old dairy to bring out the best in the sounds that ended up on tape.

Innovations in recording and mixing technology

During the 1960s and 70s, S.T.C. studio enjoyed unqualified success at the top-end of the music business as did its manufacturing division. With the latter, Frost and Wood commenced work during 1964 on a pioneering range of audio recording consoles starting with their “A Range” desks, followed in 1969 by the “System 12” mixer – one of the first ever compact desks in production. Eventually, forty or so of these desks were built and sold.

Sound Techniques Chelsea's System 12 recording desk - taking in the beach.

The System 12 was conceived during a brief stop along the road for a cup of tea, where John Wood, in a manner reminiscent of other high-intensity start-up entrepreneurs, drained the café’s supply of napkins sketching out prototypes. Eventually, the desks that Geoff designed for Sound Techniques would also help shape the sound of the records made at Chelsea as well as the other studios they supplied. For example, Trident and De Lane Lea (at both Kingsway and Wembley) bought a succession of S.T.C. mixers over the years, as did Sunset Sound and Elektra studios in California.

Establishing a reputation for excellence

At the time of Studio Techniques’ inception, a majority of studios in London had the reputation of being, as Frost notes, “stuffy and oppressive, manned and administered by scientists in brown lab coats who had little interest in the nasty guitar music that had so rudely thrust itself upon them.” But by the middle of the 1960s, new independent labels like S.T.C. were primary innovators in advancing a new, “hip” recording environment with a passion for popular music. For instance, on the 11th and 12th of January 1967, Pink Floyd and producer Joe Boyd spent two days at Sound Techniques, recording and mixing “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Nick’s Boogie” for the Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London soundtrack.

A seminal moment for the studio was when Elektra Records began booking time there. The label was referred to S.T.C. by ex-EMI engineer (and good friend) Malcolm Addey. It was through this relationship with Elektra that S.T.C. came to know producer Joe Boyd – after which Pink Floyd and many other musicians found their way to S.T.C.

“It was much funkier than places like CBS or Abbey Road, the bigger studios that people had spent lots of money on” said Dave Pegg, bass guitarist for Fairport Convention, “But those studios never had very good ambiences as far as I was concerned. Sound Techniques was like coming home to us – and there was the cake shop next door and the pub opposite – I remember the pub opposite really well!” And Craig Leon, a noted composer who produced the first Ramones album and who now composes and produces classical music, said of Sound Techniques: “I think what was great about the place was the room and how John and Geoff understood how to get the best out of their console since they knew it so well. It was just right for recording acoustic singer/songwriter folk music.”

Foremost amongst its many advantages, S.T.C. studio was designed to be functional. Function arose from form and substance trumped style.

The end of an era and, like the phoenix, reinvention

John Wood in S.T.C. studio, 1974. Courtesy, Sound on Sound

The Sound Techniques studio under the stewardship of John Wood and Geoff Frost came to a sad end in 1974 after the existing lease ran out. John Wood continued in the music industry becoming a successful freelance engineer and producer while Geoff continued to use the Sound Techniques facility to run a burgeoning software development house. The Chelsea studio freehold was bought by Olympic Studios, who continued to use the facilities until the early 1980s. When S.T.C. studio closed its doors in 1976, the manufacturing division (now based in Mildenhall, Suffolk) diversified into computer software. S.T.C. (now known as S.T.L. Technologies) soon got a contract to install the first computer system dedicated to Magistrates’ Courts software. The company has since flourished and now specializes in the development of law enforcement systems and software.

Geoff Frost creating a schematic on building an analogue mixer (“A bit bleeding obvious, you say?!”):

 

For further viewing and reading:

Matt Frost, music writer (and son of Geoff), has written an excellent history of the studio at Sound on Sound magazine. This has significantly informed the present article.

Sound Techniques’ YouTube channel is an invaluable resource for learning more about the history of the studio, in addition to technical instruction.

*Author’s note: I will be interviewing Geoff Frost shortly, and will post the transcript of my Q&A at that time.

-Chris Hartman

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.

STC Model 4033-A microphone. Courtesy, http://www.coutant.org

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

Geoff Frost, 1959. Courtesy, Sound Techniques.

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.

-Chris Hartman

In Part II, Sound Techniques is born and an interview with Geoff Frost