The Space Is The Place - Taylor Parkes On Abbey Road Studios
, March 24th, 2012 11:48
Taylor Parkes visits Abbey Road studios and talks to Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan about the rooms that shaped seminal albums by The Beatles and Pink Floyd
It must be hell to live on Abbey Road, NW8. Yes, you're close to Lords for the cricket; yes, it's handy for all those whist drives round at Lily Allen's place. But getting to and from your dental practice or your city solicitors must be a nightmare, should your route take you over that goddamned zebra crossing. Traffic to and from Grove End Road is backed up for yards, almost constantly, as gangs of tourists shuffle over the crossing, just like The Beatles – if The Beatles had had fifty members, all of whom were carrying rucksacks.
Once a month, the graffitied wall outside Abbey Road Studios gets a fresh coat of paint, not in any hope of it staying clean, just to make some space for yet another set of devotional daubings. Signs inform the multitude they're being watched by a webcam, not to enforce anti-graffiti laws but to let them wave to the world, or to that section of the world who sadly can't be here and have instead logged on to the official 24-hour webcast, to watch strangers on their haunches scrawling “IMAGINE THERE'S NO HEAVEN - John I Love You, From Argentina.”
It's easy to laugh, but let's not forget: we're really laughing at love. Abbey Road Studios could be the nearest thing this city has to a holy place, and for many coming here is not a day out, it's a pilgrimage. If The Beatles had recorded in an abbatoir in Osterley, people would come and people would worship - but in actual fact, there is something special about Abbey Road, particularly Studio Two, where the group recorded 95% of their work in the 1960s. Even if you can't quite put your finger on it, you can hear it very clearly.
This afternoon, Studio Two is open to the public for the first time in years, for a talk by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan – producers, musicians and studio historians, whose fascinating if intimidatingly technical book Recording The Beatles took almost 16 years to research. The ancient red chairs which have supported some of rock's most famous arses are set out in rows on the studio floor; lined up against one wall are a clutch of instruments owned by the studio and used down the years on countless recordings (including the blond Challen piano familiar from pictures of The Beatles at work, and the Schiedmayer celeste heard on the intro to 'Time' from Dark Side Of The Moon). Against the other wall is a wealth of vintage recording gear: slabs of metal and plastic festooned with comically enormous dials, like something from Battersea Power Station, or the centrepiece of the villain's lair from a 60s episode of Doctor Who.
Here's a BTR2 tape machine from the 1950s and 60s, bottle-green and beautiful, the crate on which so many psychedelic effects were first created – the LSD experience channelled through something which looks like your grandmother's fridge. Next to that is the BTR3, its stereo brother, the only visible difference being that like most gear that dates from this period, it's a fetching shade of battleship grey (BTR stood for British Tape Recorder, and there is indeed something resolutely British about its unprepossessing bulk, the studio equivalent of a Morris Minor). Moving on, a Studer J37 4-track, one of the loveliest and most famous pieces of recording equipment ever, complete with fabulous musical-note graphics on its great big Fisher Price push-buttons - and there, the Altec RS124 compressor, a small, rectangular silver panel which played a surprisingly influential role in the sound of The Beatles... of which, more later.
And some readers will already be switching off, slack-mouthed and horrified, convinced that an interest in what are just boxes is at best a kind of perversion, at worst the unfathomably boring preserve of the prosaic muso mind. Nothing to do with what music's about! This kind of quasi-religious approach, a sworn refusal to peep behind the curtain, is actually kind of admirable - certainly for listeners who are not also musicians, and thus are able to experience music merely as a rain of pleasure. But you don't have to spend each idle moment flipping through copies of Sound On Sound to be at least a little intrigued by the basic mechanics of sculptured noise, or the techniques used to convert musicians' abstract fancies into something you can hear. Anyone involved in making or producing music, furthermore, will (or should) have an interest here, since the history of Abbey Road and the stuff that's in it offers clues to why so much contemporary music sounds so desiccated - or at least, so drearily, digitally flat.
Number 3, Abbey Road is a large town house in St John's Wood, built in the 1830s as a residence for some bewhiskered surgeon, probably, or a loon from the dregs of Burke's Peerage. It was bought up in 1931 by The Gramophone Company – which would become EMI Records - on account of its huge back garden; the old house was turned into the studio offices, the studios themselves were built on the back lot. Opened that year with a classical session conducted by Sir Edward Elgar, with George Bernard Shaw an invited guest, Abbey Road – originally known as HMV Studios, then EMI Studios, until The Beatles' last LP invested the nickname with a lucrative cache, and prompted an official name-change – soon became, and still remains, the most famous recording studio in the world.
Long before The Beatles and their team pushed the wheezing tech of the 60s to its limit, wiring up multiple 4-track recorders, baffling the equipment with tricks and dodges to exploit malfunctions and distortions, people had been trying new things here. The world's first stereo recordings were made in Studio Two in January 1934 - although it was more than two decades before stereo playback equipment allowed the technique to be used for pop - and the comedy records overseen by Parlophone producer George Martin in the 50s pioneered funny-noise techniques which would prove surprisingly useful on the most celebrated records of the 60s.
Behind the sober suburban frontage are three individual recording studios, each originally assigned to one of EMI's three labels (HMV, Columbia and Parlophone). The centrepiece was Studio One – then and now, the biggest in the world - built with a stage at one end facing several rows of wooden chairs, as though nobody could conceive of music happening without an audience. A huge room with a soaringly high ceiling, it was kitted out with an Art Deco interior by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, designers of the Hoover Building, as far removed as can be imagined from the nuclear bunker atmosphere of most modern recording studios. That was ripped out some years later when diva-ish Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini threw down his baton and left a session, claiming the room sounded dry and choked the resonance of his strings. The new interior, most of which remains, was better suited to orchestral recordings, and after a fallow period in the 80s when EMI employees would use the largely redundant space as a badminton court, it's become a popular location for the taping of Hollywood film scores.
Studio Three was the smallest room, intended chiefly for singers working with piano accompaniment, or for recording plays and speeches. Once The Beatles had given up touring and turned Studio Two into their own private rehearsal room and crash pad, Three became the first-choice studio for new bands signed to EMI. It was here that Pink Floyd recorded Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, while down in Two, The Beatles worked on Sgt. Pepper's (the groups were introduced to each other by Floyd producer and former Beatles engineer Norman Smith, though the Fab Four were by all accounts at this point so impenetrably stoned, the meeting of minds was a little underwhelming). Studio Three has not been preserved and is now a modern recording space, kitted out for 5.1 mixing.
But Studio Two looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1962, when the boys piled out of the van and met their handsome Brylcreemed producer. The school-hall floor, the whitewashed brick, the steep staircase up to the control room, all are still present and correct (and a sentimental draw for bands who pay top-dollar to record in here, increasingly valuable revenue for a cash-strapped EMI). The control room, though, has changed a great deal. It's plush and dark and comfortable; the wall at the far end has been knocked through, opening up the cupboard space into which The Beatles piled to record 'Yer Blues', a typically loopy (and fruitful) attempt to create yet another new sound. Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan pick at the fruit bowl, illuminated by the flickering lights of an AMS Neve 88RS console which looks somewhat swisher than the gear we're used to seeing in all those black-and-white snaps.
“There was a time when we almost lost everything that was historical,” says Brian, gently shaking his head. “In the early 80s they were going to rip it all out and modernise completely.”
Indeed, the vast majority of Abbey Road's stash of vintage gear was flogged on the cheap around this time, replaced by those early digital machines which render so much non-electronic music of the period practically unlistenable.
“But it was fought, and the studio was saved. I mean, they had fibreobtics in the walls when I came here in the 90s, and a lot of the stuff that happens here is very modern, 5.1 mixing and so on. The shift has been away from making pop or rock records, Pink Floyd being here for four months at a time, towards coming here to do overdubs or vocal sessions, or mastering, or something with strings. But if you want to come here and use a vintage desk and vintage equipment, you can still do that.”
“And Studio Two has something that modern recording studios can't offer,” adds Kevin. “Because in the early days the technology wasn't sophisticated enough to alter or enhance the sound after the fact, so you had to make sure the source material was as good as it could be. So they laboured over making the rooms as sonically pleasing as they could be, and that room is unique – everything sounds good in it.”
It's a concept that's almost disappeared from pop recording: the space, the room. Plenty of modern music, of course, has no need for physical space, its sound-world being entirely virtual. But any record which uses traditional instruments, or features ensemble playing, can benefit from a sympathetic room – and not because of any inherent superiority in “organic” recording (much of the best work done at Abbey Road, in fact, specifically aimed to alter or subvert the live sound). It's more that the basic discipline of musicians working together in one clearly-defined space - where things sound good from the off and can be tweaked and enhanced from there - creates a certain mood, a fire which doesn't quite catch when records are pieced together over many months in a chaos of different studios, or in one of those secluded capsules with no ambience, no sound of its own. In some ways the loss of The Space, somewhere music happens, and is defined by the room and its various properties, is a plague on modern record production – just as strongly felt as the shift from analogue to digital, or lately, production techniques which only flatten the noise, snap off the peaks, muffle the movement of the music itself.
“There's something about the room that mostly older engineers value,” nods Brian. “If you're sticking a microphone up against a guitar amp it doesn't matter where in the world you do that, but if you're recording drums for instance, the room is the drum sound. Or piano – the room is the sound of the piano. You cannot subtract it. And it contributes to that if it's a beautiful room, the same way that a beautiful piano sounds better than a digital one. The rooms here were designed for acoustic music, long before we had amplifiers or most kinds of modern recording, they were designed purely for their acoustics, for the sound you could achieve in the space.”
Abbey Road Studios – specifically, Studio Two – is the most celebrated space of all. In its heyday, Abbey Road was never exactly state-of-the-art. In technical terms it lagged behind American studios like Gold Star or Sunset Sound; even independent London set-ups like Sound Techniques were quicker to move with the times. It suffered from a certain stuffiness: as late as the early 1970s, EMI's technicians were obliged to work in long white coats, like doctors or butchers. Legend has it that 'pop' and 'classical' engineers were uncomfortable in each others' presence, eating at separate tables in the studio canteen. It was stuck with 4-track recording at a time when rivals like Trident and Olympic had already installed 8-track machines (George Harrison claimed that when EMI did eventually splash out on an 8-track, they kept it hidden away for months, and The Beatles were forced to bribe an employee to unlock the cabinet and let them at it).
But the records made at Abbey Road in this period have a sound: loud and spacious, rich and warm. You only have to listen to Pink Floyd's debut single 'Arnold Layne' (recorded at Sound Techniques) and compare it to the gleaming clatter of their Abbey Road-made debut album. The former has a pinched intensity with a definite charm of its own, but Piper At The Gates Of Dawn has that unmistakably bright, almost hallucinatory Abbey Road clarity. The sheer hugeness of The Hollies' harmonies, the metallic punch of 'Apache' by The Shadows, the tiered textures of Brit-psych blow-out SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things – all made at Abbey Road, all sounding creaky now in a purely technical sense, but somehow bigger and deeper and better in their basic sonics than much of what followed.
Brian knows what I mean, at least. “We're curious how much of that was intent, to fit the radio and to fit people's players at home. You know, 'we could put deeper bass on, or this and that, but will it translate to what people are hearing at home?' So they made a very resonant mid-range sound, which is what you're describing – it's a very warm but thick mid-range sound. It's beautiful, and it's harmonically complex. It's not a hi-fi classical sound, but it is incredibly rich. And there's an echo chamber on almost all the pop records from that era - particularly the first Pink Floyd album - which is the one from this room, and it has no top, no bass, that was all slashed off. So there's this mid-range ring on things when the chamber is added, which adds to that, a very distinctive sound.”
The Quietus has already discussed the 'Loudness Wars', the race among producers to outdo each other with dynamic range compression, making music sound louder, and worse, than at any previous point in history.
“Yeah, the restriction of dynamics,” Brian sighs. “With digital we have more range, we can go louder or quieter without hiss or record noise, and yet in the era when we have the power to do this, meters don't move at all. We have the ability to go BAM! and hit you so hard, but it's just never used. Compared to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, old classical recordings, we have the ability to do more than that now by a factor of two or three, and it's not being done because people just want things loud - so it stays loud, and very flat. If you had less than half an octave of notes, how good would music be? Because that's the equivalent...”
Is the lack of room ambience another factor in this flatness?
Kevin: “Yeah, I find that with modern studios, whether they're home or professional studios, there tends to be a homogenous blend of tools. Everyone has the same kind of equipment, the same mics, they're using them the same way. And because they don't have a great room, they're trying to minimise that part of the recording by miking everything from this far... very close up. It's kind of restricting. And part of the problem is this flatness – whereas here, you can mic from wherever you like and the sound's going to be good.”
“On the first Beatles album,” Brian explains, “they had a kick drum mic which was off to the side a bit, and also picked up hi-hat and snare. There was a conscious attempt to capture the live Beatles sound – they didn't want separation and clarity like The Shadows had. They were a wild group! Norman Smith, the engineer, told us they didn't even set screens between the instruments, which was standard practice.”
Kevin: “When we interviewed Norman, one of the things he revealed to us was that they also set up room mics, all around the room, which is not something I think of as being done much in those days. On most recordings they were still trying to minimise the sound of the room with baffles. But here they set up room mics to pick up that sound bouncing off the walls. That's why that album sounds so incredibly 'roomy', although it was gone by the next LP.”
Brian: “By Rubber Soul it was all gone – no more reverb. He said 'everyone used reverb to get that studio sound, but we didn't want that tail on things, that ahhhhhh in the distance', and it dries up right there. So you got a different sound which is also great, this warmer feel which became the sound of the 70s.”
Which is where those Altec compressors come in. Rubber Soul - incredibly dry, incredibly full – is almost a demonstration disc for these legendary bits of kit, one of which recently turned up on eBay with an asking price of £25,000. The effect of the Altec compressor is basically to seal in the sound, squeezing instruments together without losing power or clarity. If modern dynamic range compression throttles the life out of rock and roll, the Altec made it come alive. Its rich and vaguely unearthly effect characterises much of the music of the 60s and early 70s; Paul McCartney has said that it was only when the Altec went on that The Beatles' night's work “sounded like a record”.
“It was one of the great discoveries when we were here researching the book,” says Brian. “We opened the cupboard and the Altecs were there. No one had been looking for them, no one knew they were here, they'd squirreled them away since 1974 or something. So we said 'can we get one of those out?' and they said 'well, we'll try to get one running'... and we put it on and it sounded AMAZING. On anything. The Fairchild limiter was famous, everyone knew it, so you could buy one of those – but you couldn't find those Altecs anywhere. And they were the secret weapon of Abbey Road.”
They'd put everything through it, right? The whole thing?
“The mix, yeah! It does make things sound better, in a beautiful way. It's hard to describe, it's not just level control, it's harmonic and tonal too.”
Kevin: “It's one of those things you were asking about, which contributed to the sound. When they'd filled four tracks and were bouncing down to another tape machine, not only would the Altec have been used on the recording of those four tracks, when you'd bounce down that would go through the Altec, then if you did more overdubs they'd go through the Altec, then when you mixed it went through the Altec, so whatever it was doing to the sound it was there in triplicate.”
Brian: “People have tried to build replicas. I've seen one company doing a version of it with modern features – the old levels in these studios were much lower than what we currently use. You couldn't run an original Altec into a ProTools rig and get a decent signal. So if you bought the original you'd be limited in some ways, and Abbey Road have created a software plug-in now, so you can still use the effect. But these are the original, there's something special about them - it's Beethoven's piano but the strings are rusted. Do you wanna get new strings or do you wanna keep Beethoven's strings?”
In certain circles, the Abbey Road engineers of the 60s and 70s are almost as well known as the groups they served. At that time the most highly-trained studio technicians in the world, EMI staff were good. The aforementioned Norman Smith; Ken Townsend, the unsung inventor of Automatic Double Tracking; Alan Parsons (prior to the Project); Stuart Eltham, Peter Bown. The names might only be vaguely familiar even to obsessive readers of sleeve notes, but in fact they played a quietly influential role in the development of British pop. If John Lennon or Syd Barrett had a bright but seemingly unworkable idea, it was usually one of these chaps who made it happen, in the process breaking new ground for everyone.
“There was a very high level of training,” agrees Brian. “Because one day there were doing a rock band and the next a Scottish marching band, so you had to have flexibility and power. Whereas if you just work on heavy metal or hip hop records, that's what you know and it's easier to become limited. You're not as likely to incorporate something strange, or bring in external influences.
“But the funny thing is, a recording engineer in those days was not quite... not what we would now perceive as technical. They'd operate the equipment but they didn't know how it worked, or what was in it, and perhaps that contributed to the way they approached things. Nowadays it's 'the crossover frequency, and my sampling frequency, and you can't plug that into a Firewire because...' Back then, the engineers were not even allowed to plug into the patch bay. They weren't allowed to move the vocal from track 3 to track 4 for a doubling, they had to call someone down and say 'would you please move this vocal from 3 to 4?' and the technician would move the vocal so you could double track.”
Pink Floyd's Nick Mason recalls a serious ticking-off from an Abbey Road official when he first began to experiment with cutting up and re-editing tape (an effect used on 'Time' and 'Money', amongst other songs). At that time it was strictly forbidden for artists to go anywhere near the actual tape.
“There was a definite hierarchy. It was much more like the military than any recording studio any of us have ever been in. Most of the groups eventually grew some horns and said 'we want to turn the knobs ourselves, we want to move the microphones', but originally even the engineer wasn't allowed to do that! Very strange.”
In fact, a lot of what went on in the studio in its heyday seems bizarrely old-fashioned. Stereo recording was still a novelty; groups would sign off on the mono mix, then the team in the control room would chuck together a stereo version which (rather like 5.1 remixes now) was seen as something of a gimmick, a little treat for the early adopters but not really the “proper” record. There's a reason the recent Beatles remasters were issued in mono as well as stereo: the mono versions sound much better.
“If you listen to the Beatles' stereo recordings,” smiles Kevin, “in 90% of them the drums are right over here on the left and the guitars are way over there on the right. It's a really striking thing. For a long time we considered it a creative choice the engineers made, until we investigated the recording desk and realised that the desk at that time was set up for stereo classical recording, for orchestras.”
To create the effect of sitting in a concert hall?
“Yeah. Anything brought in on channel one was assumed to be the left side of the orchestra, and anything on channel two was the right side. There was no pan-pot there, it was hard-panned left and right. So the way the 4-track tape layouts worked, you were expected to record all your instrumental content on 1 and 2, vocals on 3 and 4. Whatever was on track one, usually the basic rhythm track, bass and drums, would be on the left, and guitars on track two to the right. There were pan-pots for the horns and the vocal soloists, which were done on 3 and 4, so you could bring them to the centre. Which is where The Beatles recorded vocals, and so the vocals are usually centred while the band are split across the stereo picture.”
That's an example of the limitations of 1960s technology interfering with the sound (as anyone who's tried to listen to a stereo Beatles album on earphones will appreciate). In other ways, those restrictions were useful.
Brian: “Creativity comes from having too few options and pushing hard against those boundaries. In my studio, we're about to do a record with a band that wants to record on eight tracks only – I love the challenge of that, because you focus on other things. I mean, I've worked on old records, one of my jobs is going through old tapes, and you think 'Wow, here's The Who at Woodstock... and Keith Moon's drums are on one channel. Just one mic or two. But it sounds fantastic, the excitement is there, and it does leave space for the bass to be larger or the guitar to be wilder, which is obviously a great feature of The Who.”
“The thing is, you don't have to maximise everything. If you were working on a painting, and you made the horse large, and the bucket large, and the tree large, nothing would fit in the picture. Same with sonics. One of the best drum sounds in the world is on Led Zeppelin records – most people agree - and it is two mics and a kick drum mic. They didn't want more mics, because it's a better sound than 13 mics on the drum kit. The Beatles had six or eight microphones for everything, but they were saying things like 'Can we run through the desk twice, add treble to that twice? Will it sound terrible?'' Well no, it sounds different.” (You can hear this effect on the guitar solo on 'Nowhere Man'.) “I mean, we're used to that kind of sound now, but at the time it was not natural.”
For all their weird white-coated formality, the Abbey Road staff were always open to innovation, the wilder the better. From the grotesque thuds and twangs of Bernard Cribbins' 'Right Said Fred' to the gaffer-taped wonderworld of 'Strawberry Fields Forever', you're hearing the work of people who knew their job so well they could do the “wrong” thing for the right reasons.
“And a few of those people are still here! It's so strange to still find people staffing this place who were here in the 1960s. In any kind of service it's unusual for people to last more than a few years, much less decades, or a lifetime. And they have a perspective and an experience that other people don't have. It really says something about this place.”
So Brian and Kevin deliver their talk on the history and import of Abbey Road. It's great stuff: even the technically-minded learn a lot from the chat, and on top of that there's rare, ancient footage of Jack Hylton and his band, Ruby Murray in an early promotional film pretending to flirt with her conductor, home movies of The Hollies recording in a distant 1964 – as well as the inevitable Beatles (although Apple's tight hold on film rights means we have to be content with photos).
What comes across is a deep love of this place, a sense of its mystique and an understanding of its reality. Modern recording techniques have opened up the world of production to anyone who can work a computer, and has a little patience; in almost every conceivable way, this is a good thing... but there's always a catch. The loss of that formal discipline, that beautiful space, that wonderful sound; those guys who know exactly what they're doing. For most young musicians these things are lost, although not irretrievably – there are still a few good studios with a healthy respect for the best old ways. Sadly, for all but a remote pop elite, or those with an independent source of income, recording at Abbey Road itself is likely to remain a dream.
“It's a challenge nowadays, with the budget,” Brian admits with a sigh. “The music business is not what it was, it rarely has the budget – Lady Gaga was just recording here, she has the budget, many people when they have the financial capability decide this is what they want to do. But most recording now is home recording, even professional work. And Abbey Road understand that, they've made samples of their pianos, they have plugins of the vintage equipment, which keeps the Abbey Road name alive.
“But we were talking about recording studios being state-of-the-art - well, state-of-the-art these days is a laptop. And that's fine, but it's not exciting. It has potential for anyone to create a masterpiece... but that doesn't often happen. It did happen here. It happened a lot.”
A few days later roadworks appear outside the studios, taking out half the zebra crossing. Any readers considering a visit should note that currently they can't be George or Paul, and their version of the Abbey Road cover is going to include a Portaloo. It'll break somebody's heart, you know - but locals may permit themselves a spiteful little laugh.
Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan's next set of talks at Abbey Road are on March, priced £75, tickets available from
Thanks to Tommy Barton for help with this article