James Lock 1939-2009

Written by: Simon Eadon

Jimmy Lock was first and foremost a singer’s engineer. He was always Jimmy, never James. He loved opera and its stars and had a genuine instinct as to how a singer’s voice behaves. Through the use of judicious microphone placement and sensitive fader movements he knew how to nurture a voice and make it sound convincing on record. After a spell with Saga Records followed by National Service he joined the Decca Record Co. Ltd in 1963, where he was involved with most of the world’s great opera artists, until his death a few months short of his seventieth birthday. He inspired confidence in artists and colleagues through his own dedicated work ethic and his good humour. He was an excellent mimic too, a talent no doubt enhanced by his acute hearing, flawless memory and analytical powers of observation. Soon after Jimmy joined Decca he was involved in major recordings. He took over responsibility from Roy Wallace for projects in the Victoria Hall, Geneva with the Suisse Romande Orchestra under Ernest Ansermet. In conjunction with Kenneth Wilkinson he headed a formidable recording department, nurturing younger engineers. Unlike ‘Wilkie’, who was very conservative and disapproved of engineers straying from his tried and trusted techniques, Jimmy encouraged engineers to be innovative and experimental.

Jimmy will probably be best remembered as the senior engineer on the ‘Three Tenors Concert’ and the internationally acclaimed recording of Puccini’s Turandot with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. However, he was also frequently involved in the setting up of new recording venues: Chicago, Montreal and Vienna (where Decca had to move from its long-established residence in the Sofiensaal to the Konzerthaus), to name but a few. The quest to find a good recording space for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra took them to no fewer than 40 locations before settling on St Eustache.

He had a close association with Georg Solti, with whom he was involved both in orchestral and opera recordings. In addition to recordings, Jimmy pioneered the sound reinforcement design that became the norm in the stadium concerts featuring Pavarotti. Jimmy’s list of recorded artists and repertoire would make an impressive catalogue in its own right. He was always a good colleague, in spite of personal demons. He often displayed a wickedly acute sense of humour and an ability to defuse the tensest of situations by spotting the ridiculous. Christopher Raeburn would always carry a tin of Melloids with him. What looked like black pieces of glass would soothe the sorest throat. I remember one occasion when Jimmy managed to substitute the contents of Christopher’s tin for plastic cable bindings. They looked quite similar. Neither Christopher nor Pavarotti was terribly amused at this prank, which, of course, made it all the funnier for those of us who were in the know.

Another string to Jimmy’s bow was the instigation of ADRM – Analogue-to-Digital remastering. It was largely thanks to his work with producer Morten Winding that priceless old Decca master tapes have been accurately and painstakingly transferred to the digital domain. If possible, the engineers from the original sessions would be responsible for making their own transfers. Accurate Dolby-A alignment and playing back with the correct-width heads were fastidiously observed.

Away from the sound-recording world Jimmy enjoyed fishing and gardening. As a talented engineer he will be missed and as a fun human being he will be hard to replace.

James Lock was born on June 23rd, 1939. He died on February 10th, 2009.

  • This article was written for International Record Review and published in the April 2009 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • International Record Review

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