Graham Thirkell was an influential figure in professional audio engineering and manufacturing, and acoustic design in Australia. His innovative console and tape machine designs underpinned much of the recording industry in Melbourne and beyond, from the sixties through to the eighties, and his studio acoustic design skills saw his ideas realized in many major influential recording studios and broadcast plants right through to near the end of his life.
Graham’s father was a toolmaker, with a hobby interest in electronics, and Graham picked up these interests from him.
His early career saw him working at Byer Industries, the maker of the “broadcast standard” tape recorder of the time – the 77 Series.
Graham had a hand in many versions of the 77s. The original 77 (the 1956 Olympics Games machine), then the “Marks Brothers” – the Byer/Rola 77 Mark II and Mark III.
Bill Armstrong Studios, the Melbourne “hit factory” responsible for so many Australian hit records in the sixties, seventies and beyond were, for the most part totally reliant on equipment designed and built by Graham’s company Optronics (“Optro”). His equipment was also found in other recording studios, and television and radio stations throughout Australia.
The ABC was a big customer, particularly of his flagship Optro tape recorders – in full-track, stereo and multi-track configurations.
“Back in the day” of analogue audio and video recording, the tight synchronizing of audio from multiple multitrack recorders to video recorders and film dubbers was a critical necessity to allow greater creative freedom for film mixers, music recording engineers and producers. Graham’s Editron synchronizer solved the problem of locking together multiple machines, and developed quite a devoted user-base both locally and internationally.
His contributions to the film sound industry were recognised in 2007 with the Australian Screen Sound Guild awarding him its most prestigious award, the Syd Butterworth Lifetime Achievement Award.
Graham was also renowned as an acoustician, becoming first involved by collaborating with studio architect Peter Brown on the acoustic design of many music recording and radio studios in the mid seventies, including later work on Bill Armstrong’s Bank Street studios.
After Optronics and Editron, Graham concentrated on acoustic design and consultancy work through his company Acoustisearch.
With his thirst for knowledge, he was keen to take the field of room acoustics from an art to a science.
Graham had a hand in the acoustic design of over 100 studios around the country, often working with studio architect Peter Brown. His major projects included Radio Stations 3MP, 3XY, 2UW, EON-FM, 2MMM, ABC Southbank and many more. Music Studios included Armstrongs AAV/Metropolis, Flagstaff, Platinum, and Soundfirm at Fox Studios in Sydney, amongst others. His last major studio facility work was the HSV-7 Docklands studios.
Graham’s thirst for knowledge was insatiable.
Daughter Linda recalls that he was always excited about what was new. He was a voracious reader of books and magazines on the latest technology and regularly travelled overseas to attend trade shows and conferences to keep up with current developments in electronic design. More than one member of his family has remarked on the “metre-high stack of books and magazines” always by the side of his bed for late-night reading. Graham was always an eclectic reader on science and technology topics.
Katherine, his wife of 42 years recalled “Graham liked to share his excitement of a subject with pioneers and experts in the field; his creative and innovative approach to a subject helping to form firm and sometimes collaborative friendships with his often distant peers.”
Daughter Linda recalls that he surrounded himself with great engineers. Son-in-law Clem agrees, but adds that it was his ideas that stood out in this company. He was always talking to the customers, identifying the need and developing solutions. He was voracious in his appetite for knowledge. “It was amazing how innovative and creative that environment was” commented Clem.
Clem also comments that Graham could be in a meeting with people from a range of disciplines, and he could talk at their level to each of them. “He was usually the smartest person in the room.”
Son Gerrard wishes Graham to be remembered for his extraordinary ability to collaboratively pioneer, conceive and deliver (in most cases) world class ideas with a group of people with diverse disciplines. As a business entrepreneur it’s amazing that he was able to commercialize birthing the products he did, obviously his greatest strength was birthing dreams not so much nurturing them. He largely extended belief in other people’s abilities to pioneer with him, bringing out the best in them. Essentially he was a pioneering Father of technological dreams that blessed many.
Graham’s keen interest in the science of audio also led to his involvement with the Audio Engineering Society, and his becoming the first Chairman of the AES Melbourne Section, when it formed in 1974.
Graham’s unique approach to problem-solving served him well throughout his career.
Studio Architect Peter Brown defines Graham’s unique thinking with one amusing anecdote of the time when Graham and he were driving in San Francisco, travelling to George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch to meet with Tom Holman to discuss a project (Peter adds humbly “which of course we won!”).
Peter was driving and Graham was navigating, travelling across the Golden Gate Bridge heading to Marin County and Skywalker.
The exchange went something like this: “GT- ‘next turn you turn left … whatta ya doing ..’ PB- ‘I’m preparing to turn left ..’GT- ‘no it’s left ..’ PB- ‘yes it’s left!!’ GT- ‘no the other way!’ — it transpires that the only way Graham could deal with driving on the wrong side of the road was to switch his brain 180 degrees – so to him left had become right… his left & right were not the same as mine, Peter recalls. The journey was completed to the dialogue ‘turn left at the next turn – is that one of your lefts or mine – err, mine’ (PB then turns right)” . Peter also recalls that the subsequent discussion was completed in the car parked on a sidewalk in Sausalito (first turn left off the Golden Gate Bridge outbound).