Digging The Dancing Queen Desk

For the holiday season I offer this blog as a bit of light-hearted fun with some industry history mixed in.

This year saw the Betson family on a Baltic cruise that included a stop–off in Stockholm. Having first visited the city 34 years ago I had a dream to see the Wasa. This is the 16th Swedish warship that sank in Stockholm harbour, was raised in the 1960s and put on display. It’s like our own “Mary Rose” except a lot more intact. When I saw it in the 1980s it was covered in plastic sheet and being sprayed with preserving chemical, but now with the preservation complete, I wanted to see the finished article.

Except my family had other ideas, I was overruled and we went to the ABBA museum instead. Oh well, the winner takes it all, so a short walk up the road from the Wasa and swapping 1620 Swedish history for that of the 1970’s it was.

On Arrival at the  ABBA museum, in Stockholm’s Djurgårdsvägen, you will be greeted with enough memorabilia to satisfy the craving of even the most ardent fan, but for me, frankly, when you’ve seen one gold disc you have seen them all.

However one exhibit did put me into the “zone”.

They have “re-created” the main studio at Polar Studios, the place where many of the group’s hits were recorded. They’ve done a good job too, with instruments, headphones, an AKG 422 mic used to capture the main vocals, even wall connector pattress boxes that use XLRs and EDAC connectors all adding an authentic vibe.

Polar 1

Of particular interest to me, however, was the piece of kit sat outside in the public through-fare. Literally overlooked by The Visitors was the original Harrison 4032 desk that had the likes of “Does Your Mother Know” and the “Super Trouper” album go through it's transistors.

4032 1

This desk is a fascinating snapshot of 1970’s recording technology: The LED channel meters are pretty basic, I could only see two Aux sends per channel (labelled “Echo”) although there was, at the time, an innovate monitor mix output. The EQ was pretty comprehensive mind, with its swept and shelving functions it was this asset that made Harrsion desks the much preferred studio work-horse. To the right was a bantam-jack based patch-panel that I hope, in use, engineer Michael Tretow found to be more reliable than I have found similar ones to be!

4032 3

Other than that it had what you would take for granted on an inline multi-track desk: Channel routing, pan, solo monitor returns and even, after all these years, smooth 100 faders (don’t tell the custodians of the museum but I got my fingers under the side of the Perspex sheet that covers the desk and had a play!)

What was self evident was a lack of automation, digital technology and screens: The camera tape on the channels, although it looked freshly applied, was quite quaint in indicating on what channel the EMT 240 reverb plate came up on. This desk was (is?) a seriously vintage, very hands-on, recording tool.

4032 2

It had obviously been worked hard too. I noticed a channel missing, labels worn off and the odd button cap missing. I’m pretty sure these attributes make it the actual mixer from the studio too, rather than a stand-in. If you take a look at the video for “Gimmie, Gimme, Gimme” which was shot in the Polar studio and purportedly shows ABBA “recording” the song, about 29 seconds in there is a low-level shot of the desk with that same channel missing.

We have to thank the 4032 for the music since it helped create some of the biggest selling songs in popular music, not just from ABBA, as this particular desk was used to record Led Zeppelin and Genesis as well, but also a near identical model was used on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album too.

4032 4

Beautiful but simple as this desk is, it does demonstrate that it still the message and not the medium that counts in music production.

Some of today’s artists could do well to remember that.

Iain Betson