Abbey Road is the world’s oldest and most famous recording studio. In the ten decades in which it has operated, it has built up an unparalleled track record of technical innovation and music-changing recordings.
Abbey Road is obviously most famous as the place where The Beatles weaved their magic, from June 1962 to April 1970. They recorded almost all their legendary and music-changing singles and albums at Abbey Road, from their first number one, “Please Please Me,” to Abbey Road.
While Abbey Road Studios continues to be closely associated with the legend of The Beatles, there is far more to the studio than that. It was at the heart of early developments in recording technology in the thirties, played a central role in the British war effort during the forties, and became a pioneer of tape recording technology in the fifties, sixties and seventies. The studio’s technical innovations continue to this day.
During the 92 years of Abbey Road’s existence, countless legends of music have recorded at the studio. They include famous classical musicians and composers like Sir Edward Elgar, Arthur Schnabel, Sergei Prokovieff, Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Casals, all during the pre-WW2 years.
Numerous legends of pop and rock music also found their way to the studio, starting in the sixties with Cliff Richards, The Hollies, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Deep Purple. In the seventies there were Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Fela Kuti, Al Stewart, The Alan Parsons Project, and many more. The eighties saw artists like Kate Bush, Pink Floyd and Rush active at the studio, and the nineties Radiohead, Nick Cave, Alanis Morissette and Coldplay.
The list of legendary people and bands recorded at Abbey Road continues to grow, and today includes names like Adele, Muse, Nigel Kennedy, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, The Killers, Andrea Bocelli, Lady Gaga, Florence + the Machine, Little Simz and there also were film score recordings for Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Mission Impossible, Black Panther and many other blockbuster movies.
Abbey Road is one of the great recording studios in the world today. What sets it apart and makes it iconic is its incredible history, with many musical projects that have played a crucial role in shaping modern music and our culture in general.
Artists tend to talk about the studio in terms of awe and reverence.
Nile Rogers, for example, called the studio “mythical,” Kate Bush used the word “magical,” Dave Grohl called it “the mother church of rock ‘n roll,” Florence Welch spoke about “a semi-devotional atmosphere,” Kanye West talked about a “mystique,” Elton John called the place “sacred,” and so on.
THE BIRTH OF THE ELECTRICAL ERA
Abbey Road is the world’s very first purpose-build studio, and it was built to take advantage of the new electrical recording equipment that had been developed in the 1920s.
The pre-Abbey Road period in music recording is often described as the Acoustic Era, which was characterized by purely mechanical equipment. These acoustic recordings were of low quality, only capable of recording and playing back between 250Hz and 2500Hz, and required voices and instruments that were very loud.
Musicians had to sit close to the horn in a small room, to be able to give enough energy to move the recording material. The only way to balance the sound was the placement of the musicians in relation to the horn. For all these reasons, recordings with a full orchestra were impossible.
In the early 1920s, Western Electric in the US developed electrical recording gear, specifically the condenser microphone, invented in 1916, as well as signal amplifiers. In addition, the first ribbon and moving coils microphones were introduced in 1923. Recordings were still mechanically cut into a disk, but capturing sound with several microphones and sending it through amplifiers resulted in the invention of mixers and EQ, so the sounds from several microphones could be balanced and adjusted.
The fidelity was much improved, with a frequency band of 60Hz to 6000Hz, and the development of the much more sensitive microphone made it possible for much softer sounds to be recorded, giving rise to vocalists who crooned and whispered, while the use of multiple microphones allowed the recordings and balancing of larger ensembles, in much larger rooms.
When the realization dawned that electrical recording systems with multiple microphones made recordings of big ensembles in larger spaces possible, Trevor Osmond Williams, manager of the International Artists Department and the Technical Department at The Gramophone Company, lobbied for the construction of a purpose-built studio that would be large enough to hold a full orchestra.
On December 3, 1929, The Gramophone Company the company acquired a nine-bedroom Georgian townhouse built in 1831, for £16.500. It was located at 3 Abbey Road, in the St John’s Wood area, just outside the city center. It was known as an area where many musicians lived, and rich businessmen kept their mistresses.
The plan was in fact to build three recording studios, as well as mastering rooms, listening areas, offices, lounges and reception areas. To accommodate all this, neighboring 5 Abbey Road and adjacent gardens were also purchased.
Builders took two years to complete all the work, at a total cost of close to £100.000—about £5 million in today’s money. Much of the studio design was experimental, as a dedicated studio had never been constructed. Inevitably, many errors were made, and particularly the acoustics of the big studio space, Studio One, took decades to sort out.
In March of 1931, The Gramophone Company merged with The Columbia Graphophone Company to form EMI, short for Electric and Musical Industries Ltd. The inclusion of the word ‘Electric’ in the name was a reference to the electrical recording gear, which everyone understood by now was revolutionizing the recording industry.
The fact that the word was included on equal terms with the word ‘Musical’ illustrated the company’s awareness that technological development and musical development were going hand in hand, as would be amply illustrated during the studio’s 92-year history.
On opening day, November 12, 1931, famous British composer Sir Edward Elgar conducted the London Symphony Orchestra to record his Falstaff suite. The newly opened EMI Recording Studios quickly attracted the cream of the classical world, despite the fact that a significant amount of classical musicians remained deeply distrustful of the recording medium, which they saw as a threat to their live performance careers.
By contrast, the intimacy and performance detail made possible by the microphone attracted vocalists, and also meant that recordings began to transcended the idea of being just a documentation of a performance. Instead, the microphone heralded a new artistic medium that had a right to exist in its own right: the record.
As we know, the record became the dominant medium in pop music, and the first seeds for this were sown in Studio Two, much later known as The Beatles studio. Orchestras recorded in Studio One, and small classical ensembles and individual performers sought out Studio Three, all in the pursuit of what was snobbishly known as “proper music.”
By contrast, Studio Two was the domain of dance bands, jazz musicians and popular singers. The microphone increased the emphasis on the identity of the singer, laying the ground for what became known as “personality records.”
While scores of artists and musicians were exploring the new artistic possibilities and technical challenges at EMI Recording Studios, the technical department remained busy moving recording technology forward.
A major innovator at the company in the thirties was Alan Blumlein. The stereo pair recording technique that he invented that bears his name is still used today. Blumlein was also central to developing the famous HB1B moving coil microphone, mixers, plus new disc recorders, which were weight-driven.
The quality of Blumlein’s equipment was so high that it remained in use in the studio until 1948, when tape technology took over. Blumlein’s gear reportedly sounded far smoother than equipment at other studios, which naturally attracted many artists to EMI Studios.
THE MAGNETIC ERA
During World War Two, governments deemed the radio and recorded music of crucial importance for their propaganda efforts. Artists recorded songs at EMI Studios to support the war effort. The legendary American band leader Glenn Miller did some sessions at Abbey Road in 1944, weeks before perishing in a flight across the English channel.
In the Allied nations, the next era of recording, the Magnetic Era, started immediately after the war, and came about as a result of the spoils of war. During the war, the Allies were spooked by the fact that German radio stations were broadcasting what to them sounded like live recordings, at all times of the day.
They suspected that some kind of advanced recording technology was involved, and in 1946, several British audio engineers went to Germany on a fact-finding mission, to check out the secrets of German sound recording, which turned out to be tape recorders.
While the BBC obtained and used some German Magnetophon tape recorders for a number of years, the EMI Research Laboratory in Hayes set out to build its own version, based on the one Magnetophon they were given. The result was the BTR1, aka British Tape Recorder number one, introduced in 1948.
In 1951, the EMI R&D department came up with the RS56 passive equalizer, nicknamed the Curve Bender. It was used as part of the vinyl cutting mastering process, and its effect was the foundation for the Waves plugin of the same name.
In 1952, the R&D department came up with the BTR2, which was a vast improvement on the BTR1. It remained in use at Abbey Road and the BBC until the end of the sixties. EMI had also started to produce its own blank and pre-recorded magnetic tapes, in many formats, including type H60 and type H65.
THE PURSUIT OF EXCITEMENT
Winds of change were beginning to blow at EMI in the fifties. At Parlophone, an EMI label, a new assistant was hired in November 1950, called George Martin. He took over as head of the label in 1955.
George Martin, Norman Paramor and John Burgess were the driving forces at EMI who recognized that rock ‘n roll marked a completely new approach to making records. Up until that point, professionally-written songs, performed by sightreading session musicians, interpreted by personality singers, and played, sung and recorded as cleanly as possible, were the gold standard.
By comparison the American rock ‘n roll recordings in particular sounded rough, chaotic, sometimes distorted, but wild and exciting. And young record buyers loved it. It was the start of a new era, in which faithful reproduction of what was happening in the studio was no longer the benchmark. Instead the aim was to create excitement, and its pursuit, anything went.
Recording rock ‘n roll required a completely different mindset, and new gear. One essential magic box needed to make rock ‘n roll sound great was something called a compressor, which made things sound more in your face and larger than life. However, EMI Studios did not have any compressors at the time.
the lab technicians in Hayes stripped an Altec compressor to its components, and came up with something they regarded as far superior. They called their tube compressor the RS124.
The sonic imprint of the RS124 was so great, that it was
responsible for what became known as the “EMI Studios sound.” Waves also has made a plugin based on the RS124, and in fact pretty much all equipment at EMI Studios from this era has been replicated as plugins by Waves and other companies.
In 1955, Len Page founded the Recording Engineering Development Department at EMI, also known as REDD. The department came up in 1958 with the first valve 4-channel mixing desk, the REDD.17 Later that same year an update was produced, the REDD.37, and in 1964 the engineers at EMI introduced the REDD.51.
In the late fifties, pop music, two track tape recorders were used to overdub and balance, before mixing to mono. Inevitably, there was a move towards more tracks, and EMI Studios obtained the aforementioned 4-track Telefunken tape machines in 1959, and four Studer J37 1-inch 4-track recorders in 1965. From 1965 until the arrival of 8-track in 1968, all Beatles recordings were made on the now legendary J37.
With the above-mentioned technology in place, as well as producers who were excited by the latest developments in popular music, EMI Studios was ready for the most tumultuous and momentous musical events of the 20th century, which would revolutionize music, recording, popular culture in general, and the studio itself.
The Beatles were at the heart of these events. In the early 60s, EMI regarded its studios in Abbey Road as a resource, rather than as a business that needed to make money, and artists signed to their labels could record at the studio for no charge.
However, because of The Beatles’ staggering commercial success, they were essentially given free reign at the studio, and spent a large part of the sixties in their favourite Studio 2, particularly after they stopped touring in 1966, and focused all their creative efforts on recording.
The Beatles creative growth during the eight years they recorded at EMI Studios was as remarkable as their commercial success. As The Beatles’ penchant for experimentation took flight, they threw all sorts of technical challenges at what Paul McCartney called, “the boffins at EMI.”
The technical innovations that were the result of The Beatles pushing the boundaries included close miking of the drums, and a DI for McCartney’s bass. Combined with the RS124, it was the foundation of McCartney’s very recognizable bass sound.
In addition there was artificial double tracking, aka ADT, which was invented by Ken Townshend in 1966. John Lennon loved the effect on his voice, and called it ‘Ken’s Flanger.’ When stereo came in, the effect was also used to spread a vocal over two speakers, and on instruments as well. It resulted in phasing, flanging and chorus, which have since become standard effects on guitars.
The Beatles had already transformed the way in which things were done at EMI Studios, knocking out most of the cobwebs that were left of fifties conservatism. The white coats had become a distant memory, and artists were now in charge, and even, in a complete break of decades-long protocol, allowed in the control room and to touch the mixing console.
Amazingly, by 1968 some cobwebs still remained at EMI Studios, as management resisted the move towards 8-track. Engineer Ken Scott installed an 8-track 3M recorder in EMI Studio 2, without authorization from management.
The Beatles’ eleventh studio album, and the last they recorded together, Abbey Road, was their first recorded entirely to eight track, and mixed only to stereo. The recordings and mix made use of the newly installed 20-input EMI TG12345 Mk1 desk, that had been designed to work with 8-track tape recorders. Outboard gear that was used on Beatles recordings in the late sixties included RS124 and Fairchild 660 compressors, RS127 Brilliance Control, and an EMT140 plate.
NAME CHANGE TO ABBEY ROAD
In 1970, EMI Studios updated its mastering facilities with the EMI TG Mastering Chain, which featured the transistor-based EMI TG12410 Transfer Console. In the UK, Advision and Trident installed the first 16-track recorders at the end of 1969, and other London studies soon followed.
EMI Studios, however, took a while to catch up. Pink Floyd’s album Atom Heart Mother, recorded in the first half of 1970 with staff engineer Alan Parsons, still used an 8-track and the EMI TG12345 desk
It was as late as May 1972, when sessions at EMI Studio 2 began for Dark Side of the Moon, that Pink Floyd and Parsons first had a Studer A80 16-track tape recorder available to them, as well as a desk that has since become legendary, a 40-channel EMI TG12345 Mk IV desk.
In terms of staying with modern times, Ken Townsend became studio manager in 1974, and began a campaign to renew the studio in many ways. There was, for example, a complete refurbishing, as the studio, which was by now colloquially referred to as “Abbey Road,” had earned itself the rather uncomplimentary nickname “Shabby Road.” In 1976, Townsend also was instrumental in the decision to change the name of the studio officially to Abbey Road Studios.
As the seventies progressed, new equipment arrived at the studio, including a 48-channel Neve in Studio 3 in 1973, the first non-EMI desk within its walls. There was also the opening of the Penthouse Studio on the top floor in 1980, with windows, a novel feature at the time. In the 1980s, a 56-input SSL 4000Es was installed in the control rooms for both Studio 1 and 2, and a 48-channel Calrec in Studio 3, replaced by a 72-channel SSL in 1992.
In the early eighties, Abbey Road management was extremely concerned by the fact that Studio One was often standing empty. Various solutions were being dreamed up, including plans to turn Studio One into a car park. But a hook-up with film music production company Anvil Films saved the day. It turned Studio One into a popular place for orchestral movie score recording, and today it still is one of the world’s prime film recording facilities.
Film scores recorded there in the eighties included those for Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark., Amadeus, Braveheart, The Last Emperor, and many more. It led to a complete revamp of the control room of Studio One in 1985, with the above-mentioned a 56-channel SSL, and all manner of technical facilities for film score recording.
Later in the eighties, the introduction of the CD resulted in a rise in popularity of classic music, which led to a renaissance of classical orchestral recording in Studio One. The arrival of the CD in the early eighties was, of course, part of the digital revolution that would spell the end of the Magnetic Recording Era.
The late eighties and the nineties marked the high point of the recording industry in terms of revenue, as CDs sold in large quantities, often containing remastered versions of albums that had already made record companies a lot of money.
The capacity to make a profit from re-releasing and re-rereleasing the past was exemplified in The Beatles’ three Anthology albums, released in 1995, 1996, with outtakes, rarities, live performances and so on. These albums made EMI more money than all other releases during the years of their release, and boosted an entire industry of releases with remasters, remixes and outtakes.
The enormous of amount of money generated during this time caused what has been called an ‘arms race’ in the recording world, with studios arming themselves to the teeth with the best digital equipment money could buy, and technical specs the main criterium for hiring a studio. Abbey Road Studios was no exception.
However, while the digital revolution initially created an amount of wealth that the music makers and record companies could not have imagined, the downturn soon followed. It started at the beginning of this century, as first downloading and then streaming became the dominant ways for people to consume music, resulting in a dramatic loss of revenue.
Moreover, the hundreds of digital recording formats were all eventually largely superseded by the Digital Audio Workstation, with the arrival of Pro Tools in 1991 and Cubase in 1993. As we know, studios lost their monopoly on professional standard gear, and many closed.
Big studios like Abbey Road faced and still face major challenges to remain relevant and financially viable. Abbey Road’s ongoing success in 2023 is built on a combination of its legendary brand name, a culture of professionalism, experience and know-how built up over more than 90 years, always staying on top of new technological and musical developments, diversification, and the intangible magic that continues to attract countless artists to work there, and tens of thousands of people to walk across the zebra crossing outside.
In terms of the diversification, the amount of studios at Abbey Road has greatly expanded. Studio One, now sporting 72-channel AMS Neve 88RS desk, is still going strong with many classical music and film music orchestral recordings, including for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even Kanye West recorded there in 2005.
Studio Two has a 60-channel AMS Neve 88RS, and has been used this century by the likes of Coldplay, George Ezra, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. Studio Three has been completely redesigned, and now has an SSL G-Plus desk, and saw Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Florence + the Machine, Frank Ocean, Dua Lipa, and many more in action.
The Penthouse studio is fitted with a Dolby Atmos Home Entertainment system, and is also promoted as a “multi-purpose creative space.” Nile Rodgers, Burna Boy, Mark Ronson, Nick Cave and many others have all worked there
On top, Abbey Road Studios now has The Gatehouse, which is a tracking studio, and The Front Room, which was once part of Studio Three, and is designed as an “accessible creative space.” Abbey Road has also taken on management of another studio in north London, Angel Studios, that is known for orchestral projects.
Abbey Road has also opened The Mix Stage: an Dolby Atmos accredited and IMAX audio compatible studio, with 44 speakers and 7 Pro Tools systems, that is London’s only facility to offer movie scoring and sound post-production facilities.
In addition to all this, Abbey Road houses five mastering rooms, a vinyl services with four VMS80 cutting lathes, a live-direct-to-vinyl service, restauration services, and the pioneering de-mix technology that was developed by technical analyst James Clark, with help from Abbey Road engineers.
Since 2010, Abbey Road has collaborated with Waves and Softube to make plugins that re-create the sonic impact of the gear that has been developed over the years by REDD and the EMI research department. Much of this gear is also produced as hardware, in collaboration with Chandler Limited. And in 2021 Abbey Road acquired the famous Audiomovers software that facilitates remote collaboration.
There’s also the company’s RED initiative, named after its REDD department in the fifties, that aims to “find and nurture early stage business who we think will introduce the next generation of universally adopted technologies into the music business.”
And there’s the Abbey Road Institute, a music production and audio engineering school that operates in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Miami, Sydney, Frankfurt and Johannesburg.
In short, the magic and mystique of Abbey Road does not only continue in its original building, but is spreading all over the world. It will undoubtedly contribute to more technical innovations, and more spellbinding music being made in even the most unexpected places.
Photos from The Art of Recording Vol.1, Abbey Road Studios x Legacy+Art
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