The Start of a New Era: The Olympic Console Restoration

Out of the many amazing programs offered at NMC, our Artist in Residence program is one of the coolest. Here, artists at various levels of professional development are given the opportunity to use, sample, and record with unique musical instruments from the NMC collection.

Along with many rare and historical instruments, we are also the proud caretakers of several legendary recording consoles—the Trident A Range console, the Helios console from the famous Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, and the second Studio 1 desk from Olympic Studios.

Currently undergoing restorations by NMC’s instrument technicians, the Olympic desk will feature prominently in the new recording studios at Studio Bell.

Artistic rendering of the Olympic desk in its new home in Studio Bell. Credit: Martin Pilchner
Artistic rendering of the Olympic desk in its new home in Studio Bell. Credit: Martin Pilchner

Situated in southwest London, Olympic Studios was a mecca for some of the world’s most successful recording artists. During the 1960s and 70s in particular, artists such as Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd recorded there—establishing Olympic Studios as one of the greatest of its time.

“Cocaine” by Eric Clapton was recorded on the second Studio 1 Olympic desk.

This reputation didn’t come by accident. One of the key selling points of the studios were the innovative sound mixing desks used to record the big-name musicians of the day. Created by the Olympic maintenance staff and built specifically for the studios, the recording consoles became known as the “Olympic Desks,”and were famous for their distinct sound and design.

Unlike the vacuum-tube consoles that preceded them, the Olympic desks were transistorized (solid-state) consoles. Up until this moment, transistorized desks had got a bad rap for their harsh and distorted sound characteristics. Music-buffs still preferred the soft, pillowy tones produced by tube-based sound equipment, even if the circuitry was more cumbersome for the audio engineers.

The Olympic desks changed all of this, however. Originally designed by Dick Swettenham, the first Studio 1 console managed to integrate the signature warm sound of tube technology into the more compact and energy-efficient transistorized equipment—revolutionizing the way sound recording desks and studios were designed.

This is clearly seen with the Olympic desks. A concept pioneered by recording engineer Keith Grant, both the original and second Studio 1 desks were wraparound consoles. Unlike the humongous, flat desks before them, the Olympic desks encircled the engineer—completely eliminating the need to stand up and sit down every time an adjustment was made during a recording.

The second Studio 3 Olympic desk. Credit: Don Kennedy.
The second Olympic Studio 1 wraparound desk, now part of NMC’s living collection. Credit: Don Kennedy.

Though we do not have the original Studio 1 console in our collection, NMC does have the second version of the Olympic desk—which was installed in the studios in the 1970s and used to record artists such as Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, and Barbra Steisand. Commissioned by Grant and custom-built by Jim McBride and Jim Dowler, the later desk was also transistorized, and incorporated many of the technical details that made the first console so unique.

Instrument Technician Jason Tawkin re-wiring parts of the console. Credit: Hayley Robb
Instrument Technician Jason Tawkin re-wiring parts of the console. Credit: Hayley Robb

For the instrument technicians at NMC, the same distinct design that gives the console its historical qualities also makes for a complicated restoration process. Because the console is now technically classified as an artifact, old parts cannot just be replaced for new ones if broken. Tedious repairs and testing must be done in order to preserve as many of the original parts as possible to maintain the console’s heritage.

If anyone’s up to the challenge though, it’s NMC.


– Hayley Robb

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