The immense Korda Denham Studios complex [25 KB]
The immense Korda Denham Studios complex

Alexander Korda opened his 165 acre Denham Studios complex, Buckinghamshire, in May 1936. Films including Goodbye Mr Chips, The Thief of Bagdad and 49th Parallel were produced at the complex, which employed 2,000 staff, until financial difficulties brought an end to filmmaking in 1952. 1

A.W. Watkins (b 1895; d 1970) designed a small theatre for recording orchestras of about 50 players and acted as the sound supervisor on numerous recordings including Miklos Rozsa's Quo Vadis engineered by Ted Drake (b 1907) and J.B. Smith at MGM Stage 7, Borehamwood. It was in 1946 that the Denham "Stage One Music Theatre" opened. The large music stage could comfortably accommodate 120 performers and was designed by chief sound recordist and engineer Cyril Crowhurst (b 1906; d 1995). 2

Born in 1915, Ken Cameron was a kilt wearing Scotsman with a career dating to a wartime Britain. Throughout the 1940s Cameron recorded sound for numerous documentary, propaganda and short films produced by the Crown Film Unit. In 1944 the engineer journeyed to Hollywood to study the multi-microphone technique adopted in America. 3 Cameron subsequently published two books, in 1944 and 1947, considered industry bibles at the time: "Sound in Films" and "Sound and the Documentary Film." In 1950 he was awarded an OBE for his contributions to the industry.

The Anvil Film Unit was formed in 1952 and operated out of a theatre, offices and cutting rooms at the Beaconsfield Studios, Buckinghamshire. Ken Cameron, Ken Scrivener, Richard Warren and Ralph May were integral parts of a team that recorded post-synching dialog, Foley sound effects and music on a small stage with dimensions of 20 feet wide by 40 feet deep. At Beaconsfield, Cameron assumed the role of chief music engineer and recorded scores for British Transport Films, with conductor Muir Mathieson -- who was also musical director at the Korda Denham Studios -- and for Hammer Films, who were well-known for their horror pictures. 4

After expiration of their lease at Beaconsfield, the Anvil team relocated to the large music stage at Denham in 1966. The stage had seen sporadic activity during intervening years due to a lack of interest by co-owners Pinewood Studios and Rank Xerox. Several Bernard Herrmann film scores including Vertigo (conducted by Muir Mathieson), The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Mysterious Island were recorded at Denham during this interim period. Before the arrival of Anvil, Pinewood staff viewed music recording as a menial job and would usually assign random technicians to the work. Cameron was eager to reinvent the large music stage as a separate commercial venture however, as he was in his 50s, sought a younger person to engineer. 5

In the first few weeks of 1966, Eric Tomlinson completed recording of Ron Goodwin's score for The Trap at the Cine-Tele Sound (CTS) studios in Bayswater. Music materials were sent to Pinewood for assimilation with the film on which Ken Cameron worked. Around the time of the film's release, Tomlinson received a phone call from Cameron who was eager to meet with him.

With no prior indication on what the meeting concerned, Tomlinson met Cameron and was immediately praised for the quality of his most recent music recording. Cameron stated that he sought an engineer to run the Denham music stage whilst he adopted an administrative role. Tomlinson was shown the venue together with an impressive selection of tube condenser microphones and Cameron's seemingly endless cupboards of whiskey. Tomlinson's initial reaction was that the stage was dirty, run-down and in desperate need of modernisation. 6

After carefully considering the offer, Tomlinson decided to pursue the opportunity as he was afforded significant creative control and a greater financial reward. Management at CTS were decidedly upset with the news, especially given that they would later lose clients to Anvil. 7 Shortly thereafter, the Denham stage was reactivated under the business name of the Anvil Film and Recording Group Limited. Richard Warren was in charge of production, Ken Cameron the studio manager and Eric Tomlinson appointed chief engineer. Warren was born in 1922 and entered the industry in 1943 directing films for the Crown Film Unit.

The studio had dimensions of approximately 65 feet wide by 80 feet deep with a 50 foot ceiling. The total recording space equalled some 500,000 cubic feet. 8 The generous 24 by 18 foot control room was approximately 4,000 cubic feet in volume and equipped with a Westrex tube-powered optical console. Inherited from the Korda era, the mixer had some 15 inputs with rotary switches for left, centre or right channel output grouping. No panning or signal splitting was possible with the rudimentary console. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was recorded utilising the Westrex equipment before new technology was ordered.

Anvil control room with newly installed Neve console [35 KB]
Anvil control room with newly installed Neve console
(Photograph courtesy AMS Neve)

By May of 1968 a new custom built Rupert Neve console was under manufacture for Anvil. Designed with 24 inputs and 8 grouped outputs, the console utilised German-made EMT linear faders and 45mm channel amplifier modules. A special module, designated number 1875, was specifically designed by Rupert Neve himself for Anvil's needs. This additional electronic unit enabled the balanced microphone inputs to be routed to any combination of the 8 output groups. 9

The microphone cabinet was stocked with Neumann, Telefunken, AKG, Beyer and RCA mikes -- many of which were part of the Korda Studios legacy. EMT echo plates and an electro-acoustic echo chamber supplied reverberation whilst a separate double-glazed room provided isolation for vocalists, chorus and soloists. Four Tannoy control room speakers were operated by individual 100 watt Radford amplifiers.

Recording was nominally four-track (three channels of music plus sync pulse) to " and 1" Studer tape recorders. 35mm magnetic film was offered in four or three-track configurations to RCA and Rank-Kalee machines. Dolby A-type noise reduction was made available on tape and film recording media. 10

A 34 foot projection screen was mounted on the far wall directly opposite the conductor's podium, which in turn was located ahead of the control room. This enabled persons in the control room to view the conductor and film projected.

Installation of the Neve console and associated equipment was completed by July 1969. At this time Anvil boasted an impressive array of technology and (quite rightly) touted itself as the most technologically advanced recording studio in Europe. 11

A separate re-recording suite augmented the facility and was fitted with an RCA console supporting 17 inputs and 4 outputs. Ken Scrivener, Ken Somerville, Doug Hurring and Pat Jeffries were employed as re-recording mixers. Peter Gray was the "sound camera" operator, the technician who operated the vertical magnetic film recorders.

A price list published titled "The Sound of Anvil" and dated circa 1969 lists the following rates:

Engineering Activity Chargeable Rate
Mono recording 22 per hour
Two-track and three-track recording 24 per hour
4/5/6-track recording 26 per hour
Reduction for album 23 per hour
Post synching and effects 18 per hour

Studio operating hours were between 8:30 am and 5:30 pm Monday to Friday. Overtime was charged nominally at one-and-a-half time or double-time.

In 1970 Anvil recorded Maurice Jarre's score for Ryan's Daughter to 35mm magnetic film employing Dolby A-type noise reduction. As a test of the relatively new noise reduction technology, the Pinewood Studios re-recording department was especially equipped to properly handle the music recordings and, in addition, much of the dubbing process incorporated the use of Dolby A. 12 The resultant 6-track magnetic soundtrack was BAFTA and Academy Award nominated. 13

Also in 1970, John Williams recorded his exquisite and delicate music score for Jane Eyre at Anvil. The TV film was submitted as an industry test case for the benefits of Dolby A, which was utilised during preparation of the optical print master. 14

1" 8-track tape recording was available by 1972 however progress to machines with greater numbers of tracks and larger tape stocks was rapid. In June 1972, Anvil offered 8-track, four-track and two-track recording to Studer machines and two-track recording to Ampex units. The hourly studio rate had increased to 30 per hour and the facility boasted around the clock operating hours.

In around 1974 a 16-track 2" Studer A80 tape machine was introduced and later superseded by an MCI 24-track 2" machine. Both machines were augmented with an array of Dolby A encoders and decoders. The MCI was installed in April 1978 and first used on Francis Lai's International Velvet score. 15 The Neve console consequently saw upgrades to the output section to accommodate the new tape formats. Superman commenced recording in July 1978 and premiered as the first Dolby Stereo split-surround sound film later that year. 16 Music remixes were made to 6-track magnetic film in Tomlinson's customary left, centre and right configuration concurrently with an ambient pickup courtesy of left, centre and right spaced overheads. 17

Ken Cameron retired in 1975, the same year that Alan Snelling joined Anvil as Eric Tomlinson's assistant. Snelling would work through an incredibly industrious era of film music recording in the UK. Award winning and celebrated scores including Star Wars, Jesus of Nazareth, Alien and The Empire Strikes Back were performed on the Denham stage during this period.

The last days of Denham Studios - The great demolition of 1980 [34 KB]
The last days of Denham Studios
The great demolition of 1980

In 1980 the Anvil group were forced to relocate after a developer purchased the Korda studio complex with intentions to demolish it. "June 1980 was the last month in the life of Anvil's beloved music stage. Six months prior to this demolition work had started at the other end of the Denham site," related Alan Snelling. The last bastion of the golden age of British cinema, together with one of its best music scoring venues, was being destroyed and in its place warehouses were under construction.

In the meantime, Tomlinson and Snelling completed work on Howard Blake's Flash Gordon score. "A week after the studio had been vacated I was driving past but quickly pulled up to witness the death of our scoring stage," recalled Snelling with regret. "The walls had been burst open and the inside was on fire. I could still see the wonderful wooden sound baffles and the large projection screen that had reflected so many historic images. It was a very sad moment and one that I will never forget." By mid 1980 the Korda complex was fully razed and the precious music recordings stored in Anvil's tape vault perished. 18

Eric Tomlinson attempted to rescue as much as possible however it seems that only the Battle of Britain recordings survived -- a minor miracle in itself. Unfortunately, Tomlinson doubts that other music -- such as the three-track stereo magnetic film for 2001 A Space Odyssey -- would have been available irrespective of the destruction of Anvil. 19 Allegedly, Ken Cameron constantly sought ways to save money and would bulk-erase long runs of magnetic film to sell to his next client.

In August 1980 Eric Tomlinson and Alan Snelling formed Anvil-Abbey Road Screen Sound, commencing the next chapter of Anvil at London's most famous recording studio.

Ken Cameron passed away in 2000 and Ken Scrivener, the last surviving founder member of the Anvil Film Unit, passed in 2006.

Thank you to Eric Tomlinson and Alan Snelling, John Turner and David Lenehan from AMS Neve for their contributions.

You may also enjoy reading: The Cine-Tele Sound (CTS) Studios - A Brief Musical History and Recording Engineer Eric Tomlinson (Adobe PDF [1 KB] PDF 446 KB).

References and Footnotes
  1. "Denham Studios." Screenonline. 2007. Martin Stockham. 29 Jan. 2007.
  2. Huntley, John. British Film Music. Great Britain: Arno Press Inc, 1972.
  3. Huntley, John. British Film Music. Great Britain: Arno Press Inc, 1972.
  4. "Music for a Documentary Film Unit - 1950-1980." British Transport Films. 1993. John Legard. 29 Jan. 2007.
  5. Malone, Chris. Interview with Eric Tomlinson. 18 Jan. 2007.
  6. Malone, Chris. Interview with Eric Tomlinson. 18 Jan. 2007.
  7. Malone, Chris. Interview with Eric Tomlinson. 18 Jan. 2007.
  8. Dimensions provided by Alan Snelling 29 May. 2005 however The Sound of Anvil brochure states a 500,000 cubic feet volume.
  9. Malone, Chris. Interview with AMS Neve staff John Turner and David Lenehan. 29 Jan. 2007.
  10. Unknown. "Specifications." The Sound of Anvil. Brochure. Circa 1969.
  11. Unknown. "Specifications." The Sound of Anvil. Brochure. Circa 1969.
  12. Allen, Ioan. "The Production of Wide-Range, Low Distortion Optical Soundtracks Utilizing the Dolby Noise Reduction System."
    Volume 84. Journal of the SMPTE. Sep. 1975: 721.
  13. "Awards for Ryan's Daughter." The Internet Movie Database. 2007. 29 Jan. 2007.
  14. Allen, Ioan. "The Production of Wide-Range, Low Distortion Optical Soundtracks Utilizing the Dolby Noise Reduction System."
    Volume 84. Journal of the SMPTE. Sep. 1975: 721.
  15. Malone, Chris. Interview with Alan Snelling. 12 Apr. 2008.
  16. "Cinema Sound Before the 1990s." Elmer's Guide to Motion Picture Sound Formats. 2001. 29 Jan. 2007.
  17. Malone, Chris. Interview with Alan Snelling. 12 Apr. 2008.
  18. Malone, Chris. Interview with Alan Snelling. 12 Apr. 2008.
  19. Malone, Chris. Interview with Eric Tomlinson. 18 Jan. 2007.