Decca Records' chief engineer for more than three decades, James Lock looms large in the history of classical music recording. Renowned among artists, critics, and audiences alike for his uncanny understanding of acoustical spaces and how best to commit their sound to tape, Lock's sensory perception was so extraordinarily acute that according to legend, he could walk into a location, clap his hands, and know instantly if the acoustics would suffice either for live or recorded performance. Born June 23, 1939, in Kent, England, Lock attended Canterbury Technical College before landing his first professional engineering position at the International Broadcasting Corporation in 1955, where he recorded pop acts including Petula Clark and Shirley Bassey. From 1959 to 1961 he served as chief engineer at Saga Records, followed by a stint in the military. Lock returned to civilian life in January 1963 by landing a recording engineer position at Decca, the company where he always wished to work -- there he honed his craft under the auspices of then-chief engineer Kenneth Wilkinson, a pioneer in stereo sound recording famed for positioning studio microphones via the now familiar "tree" configuration, reinforced with a small number of spot mikes. Within months of joining the label, Lock traveled to Geneva and engineered a pair of acclaimed sessions featuring the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the first a recording of Carmen under conductor Thomas Schippers and the second a program of Berlioz and Ravel compositions sung by Régine Crespin under conductor Ernest Ansermet.
Lock's ascent through the Decca ranks proved swift, and in due time he graduated to the titles of chief engineer, manager, and executive sound consultant. He later explained that technology daunted him, and instead he approached each session from the perspective of a classical music connoisseur, relying on the feeling of air and space around the performers to achieve the sound he desired. For all of the praise Lock earned recording orchestral works, his greatest fame originates from his work in opera -- he was renowned for his instinctive ability to design acoustical environments optimized to showcase a particular singer's strengths, and colleagues also cited his uncanny ability to create a secure, comfortable studio setting, in the process earning the trust and respect of even the most prickly and insecure divas. Highlights of Lock's Decca discography include an extended collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic that yielded performances of Boris Godunov under the baton of Herbert von Karajan (with Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role), Der Rosenkavalier under Georg Solti (with Crespin as the Marschallin), and Kát'a Kabanová under Charles Mackerras (with Elisabeth Söderström in the title role). Perhaps most notable of all is Turandot with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, conducted by Zubin Mehta and regarded by many enthusiasts as the richest recording in the Lock catalog. In fact, Lock recorded the majority of Pavarotti's most celebrated efforts, including his legendary 1972 performance of Puccini's La Bohéme.
Over the course of his career Lock recorded sessions in many of the world's most legendary opera houses and concert halls, and served as an acoustical consultant on a succession of venue construction and renovation projects -- he nevertheless cited London's Kingsway Hall as his recording site of choice. Lock also kept pace with advances in technology, supervising Decca's first digital recording on January 1, 1979, when he captured Willi Boskovsky and the Vienna Philharmonic's 25th annual New Year's Day concert, which proved to be Boskovsky's final performance at the helm. Another landmark was July 7, 1990's first-ever Three Tenors concert, which teamed Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras for a performance at Rome's ancient Baths of Caracalla -- the resulting album, The Three Tenors: In Concert, went on to earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling classical release of all time, no doubt due at least in part to Lock's unrivaled skill at recording in outdoor spaces. As his Decca tenure drew to a close, Lock left his imprint on a new generation of talent -- he recorded American soprano Renée Fleming's first date for the label, a Mozart aria recital, and their collaboration continued with acclaimed recordings of Rusalka and Thaïs. Lock retired from Decca in 1999 after earning ten Grammy nominations in the category of Best Engineered Recording -- Classical, winning for Solti's 1982 performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 and again in 1992 for the conductor's Die Frau ohne Schatten. Lock died February 10, 2009, following a brain hemorrhage -- he was 69 years old.