Perhaps the most famous recording studio in the world explored by IM's Eamonn Percival
Deep in the heart of St. John's Wood, past rows and rows of large detached houses, along roads lined with Rolls Royces, Jags and Mercedes, lie EMI's famous Abbey Road Studios. On first glance at the building, it looks like any other four or five-bedroomed house you might find in the area but on stepping inside, you become aware of the sheer enormity of the place. There are three main studios, all of which are equipped for quadrophonic monitoring to varying degrees.
Studio One is the largest, measuring 94' x 58', and this is where the majority of EMI's classical recordings take place. It's basically 16 track, although it can handle up to 24 tracks, and has remote control, closed circuit TV linking it to another control room. Because of its size and acoustic properties, it is ideal for large orchestras but is considered too "live" for groups, although the historic recording of The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" TV clip was made here.
Studio Two measures 60' x 38' and, with the aid of screens, can be converted easily for orchestra or group. General Manager Ken Townsend: "Geoff Love and a lot of middle-of-the-road acts record here, yet Paul McCartney still prefers to use it. In fact, most of The Beatles' albums were recorded in Studio Two. It's a very versatile studio. We did an album here the other night with a live audience of 250 people." The control room of number two boasts one 24 track, one 16 track and four 2 track machines, all by Studer.
Studio Three is the smallest, measuring 40' x 32', but most groups prefer to use it. Late last year, work began on rebuilding and enlarging the control room, and it re-opened on January 3rd when Pink Floyd came in to record their "Wish You Were Here" album. The rebuilding took only seven weeks from start to finish, and this included demolishing an 18" thick wall and raising the floor. Studio designer Alan Brown: "We decided that the place the artists spend most of their time is in the studio and control room, so this is where we concentrated on. We made scale models of the control room and drew up loads of plans, so we could more or less visualise what it should look like. The work was planned to a strict schedule, but from time to time, jobs would overlap, and you'd suddenly find builders all over the place, so it was quite a job."
"A lot of planning and work went into the conversion. As well as enlarging the control room, it's also been completely redesigned for quad. The original studios were built in 1931, by adding on to the basic structure of the house. In those days, of course, it was all a case of direct recording onto wax and gravity-driven lathes. The whole place has been slowly modernised over the years. Studio Three was given a "facelift" five years ago. but it's only recently that we redesigned the control room." It certainly was a worthwhile exercise. The decor is now unbelievably luxurious — thick, fitted carpets and plush, leather armchairs. The soundproofing had to be moulded in with the design and the JBL monitors have been modified into corner cabinets, so they are virtually unnoticeable. The lighting can be controlled by dimmers, built onto a separate section of the desk. The desk itself was designed by EMI and built by Neve. It's a 36 in, 24 out console and is linked up via a 1200-way patchboard to the tape machines, which number 24 track, 16 track, 4 track and 2 track Studers.
"We're also hoping to move some of the offices around," added Alan, "and incorporate a large, artist's lounge with colour TV and a bar, so musicians can relax between takes."
All three studios have Steinway grand pianos, and Studio One has a concert grand. Other keyboard instruments are available by arrangement.
In addition to the three in-house studios, EMI also have two sets of mobile equipment and a Mercedes van. At the moment they're 8 track, although they may be upgraded at a later date. Cutting facilities at EMI studios are in the form of six disc-cutting rooms, where no less than six out of the first nine number one records this year, were cut. Cutting engineer Chris Blair told me "We use a diamond cutter rather than sapphire because it gives a lot more top and less overall distortion. We also have cutting amps rated at 550 watts per channel, with literally millions of tone combinations." Their work is mainly singles, and they cut discs for over 50 different labels.
There are also three tape-copy rooms, where all EMI's master tapes are copied, and three 8 track editing rooms. On the top floor of the building is a room where old 78 r.p.m. records are cleaned up and transferred onto a modern tape. In keeping with the type of work carried out here, the decor is mock-regency complete with striped wallpaper, red wall lights and velvet curtains. A nice touch. There is also a quadrophonic re-mix room and a room where mono recordings are reprocessed for stereo. Also housed in the building are two laboratories equipped for testing disc-cutters and tape machines respectively, and a quality control room where initial test pressings come back for comparison tests. Along the corridor is a huge tape-library, where thousands of master tapes are stored. "The tapes we keep at Abbey Road are the most recent and current ones. After about a year, they are transferred to our main vaults at Perivale, where they join all the master tapes we've done in the past." Alan told me.
Studio bookings are arranged by Vera Samwell in the Studio Organisation Room, where all the complicated planning is done. Obviously, with three busy studios to look after, a careful watch has to be kept on who's booked in where and when. So, with the aid of wall-charts, one can see at a glance whether a particular studio is available or not.
Feature by Eamonn Percival
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