60 Years Of Abbey Road
Richard Buskin looks back at the illustrious past of the world's most famous studio and discovers why Abbey Road has remained a front-runner for so long.
"There's a little bit less fun and more finance now, which is typical of every industry. I think somewhere down the line people have forgotten that studios exist for music and not for making money."
Having been at Abbey Road Studios since 1954, Ken Townsend has seen and been involved with many changes in the recording industry, both in terms of the approach to work and the technology used to deal with it. He himself has progressed from technical engineer to Managing Director, and has witnessed his studio evolve from an insular, cottage industry setup whose sole purpose was to serve its parent record company, to a world famous, state-of-the-art facility competing on the open market with hundreds of independent studios.
November 12 1991 marked the 60th anniversary of the place which, for most of its life, was simply known as EMI Studios, before a certain well known album by a certain well known quartet encouraged a change of name to match that of the road in which it is located.
"People unfortunately still only think of one particular group that ever came here," says Townsend. "We painted the wall outside only a matter of weeks ago, and it is now totally covered again in graffiti contributed by people from all over the world! There again, when they're not busy scribbling, they are holding up the traffic, posing for photos as they walk across that zebra crossing! So, for many people, Abbey Road is the only studio they've ever heard of, the only one they think exists, whereas the artists and clients, of course, know of lots of alternatives in lots of areas."
Matters were not always so complicated, of course. Originally a private residence boasting nine bedrooms, five reception rooms, two servants' rooms, a wine cellar and a 250 foot garden, the property situated at number 3 Abbey Road, in the select North London area of St. John's Wood, was purchased by the Gramophone Company Limited for the then huge sum of £16,500 on December 3, 1929. This was at a time when no record company anywhere in the world had its own custom-built studio, and it was seen as a considerable step forward from having to hire large halls in order to record orchestral performances.
During the next two years the house was converted into the world's largest studio, at a total cost of £100,000, while the exterior of the original building remained unchanged, in accordance with local regulations. The original interior of the house was used for offices, reception areas and Studio 3, whilst the 94 x 55 x 42ft high Studio 1 — capable of accommodating 150 musicians — was built in the rear garden area, adjacent to the 58 x 37 x 28ft high Studio 2. A garage was constructed to house a mobile recording unit, and the general intention was for Studio 1 to be used primarily by orchestras, Studio 2 to be used by big bands and popular solo artists of the day, and Studio 3 to specialise in piano recitals.
By the time of the opening ceremony, on November 12, 1931, the Gramophone Company had merged with Columbia to form Electrical & Musical Industries (EMI) and the occasion was officially marked by Sir Edward Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a recording of his own Falstaff suite. An EMI press release, headed "London's Latest Wonder", described how "just over four and a half miles of electric cable connect the three studios with the central control room. Six microphones can be used at any one time in each studio and each microphone has separate control. This will ensure that all records will be recorded with the correct balance of instruments and vocalists. There are waiting and retiring rooms for artistes and special departments for the scientific maintenance of the whole installation."
Indeed, it would be Abbey Road's technical staff who would play a decidedly significant role in the studio's success during the coming years. In 1925, the Western Electric Company of America had introduced the first electrical recording system using microphones to pick up sound, but as this was protected by various patents in both the US and the UK, EMI decided to develop its own system and thus avoid paying large royalties to WE. The result was that Alan Dower Blumlein's microphone system, consisting of a moving coil recorder and flexible wide range equaliser, was soon installed, and this would remain in full use until 1948. Indeed, as far back as 1931, Blumlein also began experimenting with stereo.
The moving coil microphones, smoother in sound than those produced by Western Electric, proved to be ideally suited to piano recordings, and so in this respect Abbey Road led the way for many years. Yet, while the acoustics in Studios 2 and 3 were satisfactory, those in Studio 1 proved to be less so. The roof and walls had been packed with dampening material which completely deadened the sound, and only when this was replaced with resonating material during the late 1940s would matters improve.
Still, Abbey Road steadily forged a solid reputation for itself throughout the 1930s, and a steady stream of internationally famous names passed through its doors in order to make use of its trend-setting facilities; Paul Robeson, Fred Astaire, Fats Waller and Noel Coward, to name but a few. By 1939, the studio had also assembled for itself a team of world-class producers, including David Bicknell, Walter Legge, Leonard Smith and Laurence Collingwood, and although World War II led to a reduction in both staff and workload, things began to pick up immediately thereafter.
Research was carried out to extend the range of the moving coil system, and in 1946 a team of British and American sound engineers — including Abbey Road's Berth Jones — visited Berlin to learn more about German developments in the field of magnetic recording. Adapting the technology found in a military monitoring system, which used magnetic tape when cracking codes, EMI was able to manufacture its own tape and recorders, leading to the BTR series which was utilised at Abbey Road for more than 25 years. The introduction of tape, which could be cut and spliced using non-magnetic scissors, meant that takes could now be edited together, while other state-of-the-art in-house equipment included a £1,000 mixing console, and a lacquer mastering system for the new 33rpm and 45rpm microgroove records.
By 1950, multitrack recording was being introduced, a 4-track version of which was developed by EMI in conjunction with Siemens Telefunken and installed in Abbey Road. This was also the year in which an aspiring pianist by the name of George Martin undertook what he regarded as a stop-gap job there, assisting Oscar Preuss in the running of EMI's Parlophone record label. In the early '50s, EMI dissolved its partnership with American record companies, CBS and RCA, and it therefore had to look to homegrown talent to bolster its catalogue. Classical music was still EMI's main speciality, but courtesy of the production, arrangement and administrative talents of men such as Wally Ridley, Norman Newell, Norrie Paramor and Ray Martin, the Columbia and HMV labels were able to build up a roster of British pop artists. Parlophone, on the other hand, had to suffice with a staple diet of light orchestral music and comedy records, as did George Martin, who would have to wait until the next decade for far bigger, better and quite unexpected things to happen.
Stereo equipment was finally installed in Abbey Road in 1956, comprising six inputs, two crossed pairs and two mono injections, but at this stage its use was confined mainly to classical recordings. Initial pop excursions into this field amounted to straightforward pairing of the mics, balanced in a remote stereo control room, but when sessions with Joe Loss and his orchestra highlighted the differences in level between open and muted brass instruments, 4-way premix boxes were added to each left, right and centre injection.
For the most part, however, pop records were recorded live in mono, necessitating neither mixing nor overdubbing, and as this kind of work increased, so Studio 1 became Abbey Road's only facility for classical recording. Yet its troublesome acoustics meant that with a large orchestra the absorption dried up the mid and top-end reverb time, causing an imbalance relative to bass frequencies. As a result, in 1958 the Abbey Road research division designed a series of magnetic delay drums, in conjunction with 100 loudspeakers which were fitted symmetrically to ail four walls. The intention was to customise the acoustics to suit particular recording setups, by way of feeding specific banks of speakers with variously delayed signals. The results were only partially successful, but Studio 1 nevertheless remained the venue for large-scale classical recordings.
Audio equipment innovations became an EMI/Abbey Road forte, and the late 1950s saw the introduction of such devices as noise limiters, single tape echo and echo delay (STEED) units, fader isolated tape echo (FITE) units, tape looping and numerous improvised effects, courtesy of engineers such as Stuart Eltham, Malcolm Addy, Peter Bown and Gwyn Stock, as well as several of the producers and artists.
By the end of the 1950s, a dozen British number one hits had emanated from EMI's Abbey Road studios, and the start of the new decade saw this trend continuing with the likes of Ricky Valance, Shirley Bassey, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Danny Williams, Helen Shapiro, Cliff Richard, The Shadows and Frank Ifield. The introduction of 2-track machines meant that at least they could now overdub, while mixing consoles — now containing smaller valves — had evolved from fixed rack to desktop-style units. Microphones were also changing, condensors produced by the likes of AKG and Neumann now offering improved frequency response. This was pretty much the state of affairs when The Beatles arrived at Abbey Road in June of 1962.
Over the next seven years The Beatles, by way of their innovative music and unconventional approach — as well as the greater freedom afforded them due to their staggering success — would help usher in many changes at the EMI Studios in north-west London. Not the least of these would be the dissipation of many of the strict rules and regulations that had characterised the British recording industry in general, and Abbey Road in particular, since the very beginning.
For many years, the staff had all had to wear shirts and ties with regulation white coats at all times, once prompting Sir Winston Churchill to comment during a visit, "My God, I thought I'd come to the wrong place. It looks like a hospital!" Recording sessions ran in three-hour blocks — 10am to 1pm, 2pm to 5pm, and 7pm to 10pm — and with 'pop' work, the normal practice was to record four songs during any one session. The arrival of The Beatles, however, soon changed all this. Initially the group reported to the studio in suits, shirts and ties, and recorded the required amount in the stipulated time. But as time wore on and their power grew, so sessions began to merge into one another, and the smart attire was replaced by the psychedelic look. The studio — for the most part Studio 2, although all three were utilised for projects such as The White Album — became a refuge for them from the frenzy of the outside world, and by the mid-1960s the band were working there through the early hours of the morning.
The console they utilised during these years was the Abbey Road-developed REDD, fitted with EMI's own tone controls and filters. The desk also allowed for an EQ box to be plugged in, a box which had settings marked 'pop' and 'classical', the assumption then being that the high top-end reached by orchestras could not be attained on pop records. There again, there were many assumptions and guidelines laid down by the EMI research division which were either disproved or ignored by innovative recording engineers such as Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick, and technical engineers such as Ken Townsend, who, in attempting to create the 'outlandish' sounds that The Beatles and their contemporaries described or demanded, were inadvertently inventing new industry standards.
So it was that the world was introduced to such tricks and effects as artificial double tracking (ADT), flanging, tape saturation, and feeding vocal and instrumental sounds through the rotating Leslie cabinets in Hammond organs; anything — not to mention a wealth of sound effects from Abbey Road's comprehensive tape collection — to attain a 'far out' result, and all of this for musicians who, in 1963, had been greatly impressed with just echo and double-tracking!
The 4-track tape machines — initially Telefunken and then Studer — had been used at Abbey Road for classical purposes since 1960, the orchestra being laid on two tracks while soloists and chorus were recorded on the other two. The Beatles started using them in late 1963, the year in which 15 of the 19 records which topped the British pop charts were recorded at the St. John's Wood studio, while Parlophone was transformed from a joke label into the new pride of EMI.
During the mid-60s, the Harvest label was also formed to accommodate the fast-emerging 'underground' music, characterised by Pink Floyd who started out using Abbey Road's 4-track equipment before 8-track was introduced in 1968 and then 16-track a year later. By this time, the studio had been opened up to non-EMI artists — much to the initial annoyance of many classical musicians — as the flood of new equipment on to the market and increased demand for facilities led to independent studios springing up; no longer could Abbey Road take it for granted that it would be fully booked with its own in-house roster.
"Abbey Road could no longer fulfill all of EMI's requirements, and so EMI started taking work outside," recalls Ken Townsend. "So at that stage Abbey Road then changed from being a service for the record company to a profit centre. We survive only if we get a certain return on sales and return on capital employed.
"If you're just a service centre you tend to get inefficiency, you tend to be old-fashioned and you don't actually change. I think it's good to actually do independent work."
Another break with the past occurred in 1976, when a 36-channel Neve console replaced the existing 24-channel desk in Studio 3; the first non-EMI board to find its way into Abbey Road. Then, in 1980, a 48-channel Neve was installed in the all-new Penthouse studio, constructed on the top floor of the building. This was aimed at accommodating more tightly budgeted projects, but at the same time it took up space that had until then been used for equipment storage. And so, on October 15 and 16 of that year, Studio 1 was turned into an auction room as more than half a million pounds worth of gear came under the hammer, including prized items such as the two Studer J37 4-track recorders used by The Beatles for the Sergeant Pepper album. Times had changed; this was also the year when EMI's prototype 8-track digital machine went into operation at Abbey Road.
While the '70s had been a decade largely of consolidation and adapting to the accelerating technological advances, the '80s heralded a whole new era for the studio. 56-input SSL 4000Es found their way into the Studio 1 and 2 control rooms, a 48-channel Calrec into Studio 3; but nonetheless the studio's overall old-world ambience and outdated appearance had, in certain quarters, landed it with the unwelcome tag of 'Shabby Road'.
"I formed a new way of running Abbey Road in 1985," says Ken Townsend. "I organised a team of five managers running the separate areas of studios, post-production, technical, finance and services, and we set ourselves a mission stating that we're here to satisfy the requirements of our clients, be they EMI or third-party.
"We've got quite a few music graduates who we now employ on things like editing, post-production and re-mastering, and we've certainly found that it's much better to have a musician adapt to being a technician than the other way around. 20 years ago it was totally different, but today the graduates come really well qualified. They're young, they're keen, they've got very good ears, and we set listening tests for them; we put a tape together with about 50 faults on it — high frequency buzz, a little bit out of phase, left and right reverse, and so on — and they have to sit down and detect these things. That way, we not only learn if they know their stuff, but we also get to monitor if they can hear as well."
When Townsend embarked on streamlining the studio, one of the most immediate and obvious requirements was for an extensive refurbishment, and this came about in 1988 when the main entrance area was totally redesigned and updated, together with the adjacent office areas and hallways.
Furthermore, Studio 3 was completely reconstructed, according to the design of Sam Toyoshima, and fashioned into a self-contained state-of-the-art facility, boasting a 28' x 26' control room, a 28' x 23' x 24' studio area, a 6' x 6' iso-room, a 13' x 19' fully-mirrored live room, plus fully equipped lounge, kitchen and bathroom located above the control room. The console is a 64-input Calrec/AMS UA8000 with TASC automation, operating in conjunction with two Mitsubishi 32-track digital machines and Quested monitoring.
Still acting as an independent operation within the EMI organisation, Abbey Road turns to the parent company whenever it requires financial support in terms of capital expenditure. "We're supported by the group rather than having to go to a bank to borrow the money," explains Townsend, "but in essence this provides little difference because we now actually have to account for notional interest; in other words, it's a bank loan from EMI."
Every year, Townsend and his management team prepare annual budgets for the following 12 month period, analysing the studio's expected utilisation, prices, costs and capital expenditure. Their proposals are then scrutinised by EMI and a budget is agreed upon.
"If we've included something in this budget, it's then relatively easy for us to actually get final approval on it," says Townsend. "Whereas some companies need a lot of signatures, here it just needs mine and that of the Managing Director of EMI Music, and in some cases these can be obtained in a matter of hours.
"That's quite a beneficial arrangement, but there again we also have to stand on our own two feet in the context that the property, which was bought by us in 1929, has gone over to Thorn Properties and we have to pay an economic rent on it, which we periodically negotiate and dispute. Their view is that every area of Thorn which is operating as a business has to actually take into account a 'fair and equitable rent', and we're also fully responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the building. Personally, I don't agree with this, but it's a fact of life."
Today, 60 years young and proud of its distinguished past, Abbey Road is prepared to forego nostalgia in order to invest in its future. So it is that Studio 2, the 'Beatles Studio' as it is often referred to by fans and musicians the world over, is to undergo a complete facelift, with the famous upstairs control room being superseded by a much larger new construction, to be located in the gardens currently adjoining the recording area. Possibly even more exciting to those who have to move gear around, however, is the prospect of using an elevator, which has at long last been installed to tie in with the anniversary celebrations! Things are clearly looking up...
"We've now got a total of 23 operational facilities here," says Ken Townsend, "and all of them are bringing money in. Obviously, we try to concentrate on the areas in which we do well, and of course classical recording has always been one of our specialities because of the immense size of Studio 1. It's actually been very, very busy lately due to the growth of CD, but while that has now peaked we also do a fair amount of film work in there; anything from Aliens and Raiders Of The Lost Ark to Amadeus and An American Tail. On top of that, we have three mobiles which are currently touring the world.
"So the classical scene has always been our niche, whereas on the pop front there's horrendous competition. We built Studio 3 — which we think is the best anywhere — but it's up against something like 250 places in this country which are of a reasonable standard. That's a considerable increase when you turn the clock back to 1950 and realise that there were only five or six! The days have gone when we could expect to have almost all of the world's top pop acts coming here."
Nevertheless, Abbey Road is a major attraction on the studio scene, not only because of its illustrious past but also because of the diversity of in-house services that it has to offer: recording, film and video post-production, disc cutting/mastering, digital mastering, tape copying, editing, CD preparation, and the CEDAR and Sonic Solutions computerised de-noising systems.
"Apart from the famous name, we really do have the major attraction of all-round facilities that set us apart from the rest," says Ken Townsend. "We have the staff here to deal with every facet. They're all individual experts, and people very often come here to do things that they can't do elsewhere. They want good service, a good atmosphere and good results, and it's incredible to think that for the last 60 years Abbey Road has been providing all that."
Feature by Richard Buskin
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