Toby Alington: In loving memory of Keith Grant (1941-2012)

Toby Alington pays tribute industry veteran Keith Grant, who passed away last week…

The legendary engineer Keith Grant sadly passed away last week, an incredible man who touched many lives in this industry. I was lucky enough to have spent several years at the stables of Olympic Studios under Keith, and he remained a great friend, mentor and colleague until the day he died.

I applied to Olympic in 1981, and Keith eventually took me on as an assistant engineer. Olympic had the traditional studio apprenticeship of taking kids from tea-boy up to engineer, and it was the most amazing training ground with an eclectic mix of film and TV scores, through MOR albums, to rock ‘n’ roll. The list of Great Artists who went through the hallowed doors of Olympic Studios in Barnes is second to none in the world. It was most definitely Keith’s studio in the old-school tradition where a studio was totally defined by its Chief Engineer, and in this case its founder. I was lucky enough to work under Keith for nearly six years until Olympic was bought by the Virgin studio group in 1987. A fine gathering ensued in May this year at the Red Lion in Barnes to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of Keith’s Olympic; an incredible turn-out of the talented characters who had at some point benefited from his guiding force, and Keith sat chatting with a smile and contentment which so clearly displayed his evident joy at seeing his extended family gathered together.

Keith’s Olympic was all about hard work and fun. If any of the juniors forgot the balance of hard work coming first they would quickly feel the firm guidance of Keith, but he would never put anyone down publicly; he was discrete, proud, always encouraging and inspirational. Above all, he was an incredible engineer, able to put more emotion and power into film scores and albums than seemed feasible. Keith’s approach was often unscientific, but he would always produce the most beautiful warm emotional sound. His collection of old valve and ribbon microphones, along with the smooth acoustics of his self-designed studio one, contributed to this unique and instantly recognisable style.

No one was immune to Keith’s practical jokes. From placing a vacuum cleaner under the conductor’s rostrum, remotely controlled from the control room and fired up during the quietest of string moments to the total disorientation of conductor Tony Britten, to the now famous gag with Pat Halling on a large orchestral session where Keith and Pat argued increasingly, first over the studio talkback and then face to face in the studio, about the microphone placement for one of Pat’s solos. Eventually Keith grabbed Pat’s priceless Guarneri violin, threw it to the studio floor and stamped on it smashing it to pieces. Pat’s violin had been replaced with a wreck of a Chinese instrument seconds before, unbeknownst to the shocked orchestra.

Keith had a heart of gold, generous in the extreme. He was loved by composers, artists and musicians not just for his understanding of their music, but for his integrity and his unremitting dedication to making things sound as good as they possibly could. The mandatory pint or three in the Red Lion after sessions would see Keith recounting tales of the industry to a captive audience who, to a man, would feel the uniqueness of Keith’s self-deprecating warm character. Everything about Keith was characterful, from his colourful and relaxed dress-sense to his collection of ever-fallible old Citroëns. His pride in his work was evident, and he would often have on-hand a recent mix of some extraordinary music to play to an always attentive audience in the studio.

When Olympic changed hands in 1987, Keith took some of his cherished equipment and set up in one of the old footsteps rooms at Twickenham Film Studios. Complete with his favourite EMT plate from Olympic and the modified Raindirk mixing desk from studio three, Keith continued at Twickenham for many years until he relocated to All Saints Church, Petersham, with the newly refurbished Olympic studio one console. When the Church Commissioners decided to sell All Saints, Keith set up his final studio in an outbuilding by his home in Sunbury, with a last-minute race to be up and running in time for the score to Shadowlands. You needed to know a few tricks to get the Sunbury room up and running (where to hit the desk, for example), but Keith could consistently produce the most glorious sounds whether recording a small ensemble or mixing in any of these studios; yet more proof of the man’s genius, with no requirement for the large environment of Olympic to help him create his unique sound.

I spent many happy hours over recent years on the river with Keith in his various boats, sharing anecdotes, talking about things that mattered deeply to him, discussing the industry and delighting in his endless humour and jokes. He lived on the riverbank in Sunbury with his wonderful wife Jenny, and his love and knowledge of the river was immense. Pottering downstream for lunch and a couple of pints, Keith was in his element. On the rare occasion the engine gave up – normally while we were approaching a weir stream – Keith would calmly delve into the housing, seemingly give it a good thump in the right place, and it would without fail splutter back to life. To be honest, that’s not dissimilar to how he kept some of the old equipment going at Olympic – he was a great fan of old valve kit, but never averse to trying new technology or finding ways to improve on it; for example I remember him deploying Dolby A units on the Sony 3324 when it first came out to try and improve the harsh top-end of the early converters, and it worked.

Keith was out on his boat last Monday with Jenny when he passed away. There is nowhere in the world he would rather have been, and no one he would rather have been with; with total clarity of mind, and no doubt the ever-present mischievous twinkle in his eye, his body finally gave up the struggle. He leaves many lives vastly enriched, and will be missed by countless people around the world. The industry has lost a giant.