Kenneth Wilkinson

Chief engineer for Decca at the height of the LP era
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The Independent Online

Kenneth Ernest Wilkinson, sound and acoustic engineer: born London 28 July 1912; married 1938 Miriam Tombs (two sons, two daughters); died Norwich 13 January 2004.

The recording engineer Kenneth Wilkinson was one of the great names of the LP era and had started making recordings in the days of 78s. As chief engineer for Decca he was involved in many of their most prestigious recording sessions, working with the greatest classical musicians of the day.

The son of a furniture-store manager, he won a scholarship to Trinity Grammar School, Wood Green, in north London. Leaving school at the age of 16, in 1928 he went to work for a publisher and when his employer went bankrupt, after a brief time in charge of the public address system at Brighton Ice Rink, he moved on to World Echo Records in Hatton Garden. There he met the bandleader Jay Wilbur who interested him in the technical side of recording.

In 1931 Wilkinson - or "Wilkie", as he came to be known to all in the music business - moved to Crystallate, a record company with studios in Hampstead, initially as a studio junior where his duties included shaving waxes. In those days recordings were made straight on to discs covered with warm wax up to an inch and a half thick, which were then reused by shaving the surface - an unpleasant job. Here he met Arthur Haddy, later to be his boss at Decca, and after a couple of years Wilkinson graduated to making the recordings. When the company was taken over by Decca in 1937, probably to acquire the studio premises, Wilkinson was absorbed, with Haddy, into the Decca team.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 he determined to volunteer for the RAF where he felt his technical expertise could be best used, but Decca would not release him as, unknown to him, they had various government contracts for navigational and acoustic developments. He would never fully talk about his war experience, but he not only worked with Barnes Wallis on the navigational aspects of the "bouncing bomb" raids, but also on submarine navigational equipment.

With Haddy he made a pioneering use of recording to decipher Luftwaffe nightfighter codes, and it is said he may have contributed to the breaking of Enigma, though he would not discuss it. During all this he also commercially recorded Vera Lynn for Decca, and soon after was instrumental in realising Mantovani's "cascading strings" on disc.

During the war, Wilkinson, with Haddy, was involved with the development of Decca's "full frequency range recording" (ffrr) technique. He also worked on disc-cutting equipment in a firm that built all its own disc cutters, and was instrumental in the development of moving-coil cutters. He was thus totally au fait with all the engineering aspects of his craft, with whose development over 50 years he was personally involved. With the move to long-playing (LP) records, Decca, responding to commercial pressure from the United States, were far in advance of their competitors, EMI.

Wilkinson first made his reputation with mono recordings. But during the era of stereo, from the late 1950s onwards, engineers and producers (previously the anonymous back-room boys of the industry) began to be regularly mentioned by reviewers; over thousands of sessions of a working life that would span a further 20 years, Wilkinson achieved a huge reputation for the quality of his recordings.

With Arthur Haddy, as Decca studio manager, Wilkinson was a pioneer of the placing of microphones for stereo recording using a now familiar "tree" configuration, reinforced with a small number of "spot" mikes. In this way they attempted to record the most realistic orchestral sound, together with the characteristic ambience of the hall. Richard Itter, of the Lyrita label, who specialised in recording 20th-century British music and whose recordings were made by Decca under contract, always asked for "Wilkie" if he was available. Itter, an engineer himself, was a true connoisseur of recording and remarked that Wilkinson was a "wizard with mikes - nothing sounded artificial - his subtle technique was fabulous".

One commentator has estimated that Wilkinson worked with over 150 conductors, indeed all the most celebrated conductors of the day from Monteux to Solti and Horenstein to Britten. He had a very special rapport with the soprano Joan Sutherland, especially on her early recordings. Possibly his most prestigious recording was Britten's War Requiem, recorded in January 1963 in one of his Wilkinson's favourite acoustics, Kingsway Hall in London.

Although a practical engineer whose experience spanned most of the post-acoustic recording era, later he was not a great pioneer of cutting-edge technology, remaining very specifically a recording engineer. But, as his colleague Christopher Raeburn remarked, "Give Wilkie a new invention and he could absorb and exploit it, and bring his own ability to bear so that he could obtain a better sound than any of his colleagues."

The Decca producer John Culshaw notes in his autobiography that in July 1951 he and Wilkinson were despatched to Bayreuth to record the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch's stage performances of Parsifal and The Ring and discovered that the performances were also being recorded by Decca's rival, EMI. Wilkinson overcame the problems of recording a stage performance so successfully that the EMI engineers were "openly envious" of the sound he obtained.

When stereo recordings were first made, two recordings were taken in parallel, one in mono, one in stereo. So long as mono was the lead format Wilkinson preferred not to make the change, recording thus Tulio Seraphim's reading of Madame Butterfly. This was a life that involved a lot of travelling to leading European halls. Wilkinson had his preferences: he did not do Geneva and only occasionally Vienna, but he had his pick of anything scheduled in England and France.

He worked a lot with Charles Gerhardt on a long series of recordings for Reader's Digest which at the time were viewed by the cognoscenti as rather down-market, but since have been recognised as some of the best-recorded sound of their time.

With his somewhat gruff manner, Wilkinson could be seen as taciturn on a first meeting, but he was not a man to mince his words or suffer an adverse critic lightly. No wordy diplomat, he was always straight and honest and only interested in doing things properly. Quality was top of his agenda all the time.

He did not embrace the new digital technology when it appeared at the end of his career. But he was still working as he approached 70 and, after a career of 50 years, Decca recognised his lifetime achievement with a specially made golden disc consisting of extracts from his most prestigious recordings. But after the take-over of Decca in 1980 he would not stay - it was not his Decca any more, he said - and he retired. Unlike many of his colleagues elsewhere in the industry he did not develop a freelance career.

His reputation is important not only for the wonderful legacy of thousands of fine recordings he has left, but for what he did for the reputation and standing of his profession: Kenneth Wilkinson made the job of recording engineer respectable, indeed prestigious. He had trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onward. After his retirement, over the succeeding years his achievement was increasingly recognised by the specialist audio press with a variety of features and awards.

Lewis Foreman