Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

My Helios

I’ve been asked a couple times about the recording / mixing console I own (with a friend). So I thought I might write a little about it.

Helios began at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London: Dick Sweetenham had been the chief electronics designer there, and according to at least one conversation I had with Glyn Johns, he and Island records owner Chris Blackwell seduced Sweetenham away from Olympic to build consoles. I’ve been told that Sweetenham, as a point of pride, would say back then, “Studios install Neve. Musicians install Helios. “ He had a bit of a point: the list of owners when it was still a going concern is impressively stacked with great musicians — the Fabs owned one, the Stones owned three, Leon Russell, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Alvin Lee, 10cc…you get it.

The story goes thus: Richard Branson bought an old manor house outside Oxford, England in 1970, allegedly with a loan from his aunt, to set up a recording studio. In an earlier incarnation, this particular manor had been home to the painter William Turner. Through producer Tom Newman, he had met Mike Oldfield and agreed to “spec” him a week’s time in November of 1972 to record. Legend has it that when no existing record label would release Oldfield’s spectacular Tubular Bells, producer Tom Newman leaned on Branson to form the record label Virgin Records to make sure it got out. If this is true, I must say — good move! From there, things spiraled upwards.

The beast, in situ (pardon reproduction).

With the profits from the record, the Manor’s chief engineer Mick Glossop went to Dick Sweetenham, and commissioned the largest Helios ever made. And, oh, it’s big. It’s approximately U-shaped, 12’6” wide, 6’3” deep, 4 feet high. 32 full microphone amplifier and equalization channels on the central part of the frame, a 28-input monitor section in the left-wing, 24-buss; a 32-input by 24 by 4 (yes, it’s quad!) by 2 recording/mixing console.

Eddie Kramer behind the board, back in the day–the Manor Helios. Photo by Morgan Fisher.

Kramer, again. Photo by Morgan Fisher.

It resided at the Manor until about late 81, and then was put in storage. A friend of Dick Sweetenham bought it in 1985, brought it over from England, and installed it in a studio in Malibu, California. I met him in 1991 (through David Manley, of all people). I bought a couple of Ampex MR-70s from him, asked what else he had, and when he said he had a Helios — I was stunned. “You have WHAT?”  Helios was legendary, but I had never seen one. He had again put it in storage, and we bought it.

We had intended to have a studio for making music free from pressure. The thought was to have the place paid for by the music that one would make there — after all, it was the early 90s, and everything I ever wanted was unwanted by anyone else — non-digital and non-programmable. But at that same time, I started working with Bill Bottrell and he seemed to have the same thought. I also moved in my with my girlfriend, got married, had a baby, and bought a house. And that’s where the studio went. My partner in the board has a small place where he does audiobooks and mixes for television.

Sometime about twenty years ago, Keith Levene was crawling around among the boxes in my darkroom (used for storage), and came across one containing a part of the Helios: “It’s the (expletive deleted) Helios computer that never worked!” It was the display for something called a Memory’s Little Helper, an early automation system. I can’t testify as to whether or not it ever worked, but I didn’t intend to use it.

Over the years I’ve had some pressure to “part it out” — that is, sell off the parts of it (and make a good profit at that). But I feel a sense of obligation to our history.  Somewhere, sometime, someone will want to put it to use.

The Manor. Modest, no?