Deep Dive

Inside an Audio Legend: Abbey Road Studios

Issue 129

Since 1969, the name Abbey Road has become synonymous in the world of popular culture with The Beatles’ swan song album of the same title. To Londoners, it is a thoroughfare in St. John’s Wood. To musicians, music producers, engineers and industry personnel, it is an historic, iconic recording studio with a long pedigree that extends far beyond The Beatles.

This year’s AES Fall Show 2020 was virtual due to New York COVID-19 restrictions that prevented the usual in-person gathering at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Among the show’s attractions that all migrated online, the marquee event was “7 Audio Wonders of the World,” a series of virtual tours of some of the world’s top recording studios that have been responsible for the creation of countless music, film scores, movies and TV programs that we have all come to know and love. Copper previously covered virtual AES tours of Skywalker Sound in Lucas Valley, CA, Galaxy Studios in Belgium, The Village in Los Angeles, and Blackbird Studio in Nashville. Number five on the virtual tour is Abbey Road Studios of London.

Mirek Stiles, Abbey Road Studios’ Head of Audio Products, led the tour, which started at St. John’s Wood outside the three-story townhouse that has housed the studios since the 1930s. The relatively nondescript front of the building belies the enormous recording studio facilities built in the secluded rear garden.

Upon entry inside the building proper is the first room: Studio One It’s a huge space; in fact the largest purpose-built recording studio in the world. It can accommodate an entire orchestra. The studio’s original Art Deco design was created in the 1930s with the intent of adding some reverberation to recordings, to simulate the music hall experience. Ironically, the amount of natural room reverb, dating from nearly a century ago, was considered to be inadequate by some classical artists who required a larger sound, so over the years many attempts were made to increase the reverb time. The current acoustic diffusers and panels have been in place since the 1970s with the original art deco design long since buried.

Abbey Road Studios, Studio One.

Abbey Road Studios, Studio One.

Studio One’s glamorous history includes its inauguration with a 1931 concert by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Edward Elgar. In its original heyday, Abbey Road Studios was the site for seminal recordings by everyone from Sergei Prokofiev, Pablo Casals, and Yehudi Menuhin to Glenn Miller and Fats Waller.

Studio One is presently used primarily for film scoring, with blockbuster films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Black Panther, Skyfall, 1917, Avengers: Endgame, Aliens, and Raiders of the Lost Ark among the studio’s more notable credits.

Abbey Road Studios’ reputation as a film score recording mecca happened as the result of fortuitous timing. By the mid-1970s classical music recording was beginning to dry up. Most of the repertoire had been recorded and there wasn’t a huge amount of new classical music coming through the door. It wasn’t until the release of CD that all the classics were re-recorded and booking seriously took off again.

In nearby Denham Studios, film sound post-production specialist group Anvil had established itself as the premier UK expert in the field, thanks to its work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Superman, Star Wars and other hit movies. However, when the Denham Studios site was converted into office spaces and Anvil’s lease expired, a joint venture between Anvil and Abbey Road was signed, thus creating Anvil Abbey Road Screen Sound Ltd., a relationship that continues to this day (although the Anvil name hasn’t been mentioned for years). The 1981 thriller Eye of the Needle marked the start of the joint venture.

Studio One’s control room is centered around a 72-channel AMS/Neve 88RS console and Pro Tools HDX, complemented by Classé Audio power amps. In addition, Studio One offers 48 channels of remote Neve mic preamps, vintage and modern equalizers, delays and reverbs, and other equipment racks that float between studios as needed. Since its renaissance, Studio One has been the choice of artists including U2, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Harry Styles and Kanye West when it’s not in use for film scoring.

Entering the fabled Studio Two, legendary for being the birthplace of 90 percent of the Beatles’ recordings, one is struck by the workmanlike layout, efficiency and lack of frills and pretension. Designed in 1931 for swing jazz-era big band ensembles, Studio Two was built with inherently more reverb in its acoustical design, so the studio now has large hanging drapes to help deaden sound. Additional swing out screens can be used for dividing the large space into a more manageable area if needed.

Abbey Road Studios, Studio Two.

Abbey Road Studios, Studio Two.

The current first floor isolation booth was originally a control room until the late 50s, back when consoles were much smaller. Given its high ceiling, Studio Two’s control room was comfortably moved vertically to overlook the live room and is accessed by a flight of stairs along a side wall.

The newer, larger upstairs control room houses a 60-channel AMS/Neve 88RS desk, Bowers and Wilkins 801 floorstanding monitors and uses Pro Tools HDX for recording. Reflecting its vintage heritage, the studio has ultra-rare EMI TG12412 EQ, TG12413 limiter and TG12414 filter modules as well as vintage Fairchild, Pultec, Teletronix and UREI gear, heard on countless classic rock records from the Beatles, Pink Floyd and many others. Other outboard equipment includes AMS delays, Chiswick Reach, Manley, dbx and Neve compressors, GML and Prism Sound EQs, and much more.

Studio Two’s Beatles’ mystique and vibe is still omnipresent and it’s no wonder that artists such as Adele, Oasis, Ed Sheeran, The 1975 and Joe Bonamassa have all recorded there. Danny Boyle’s Beatles tribute comedy film, Yesterday, specifically chose Studio Two for recording its Beatles tunes.

The famous honky-tonk-sounding “Mrs. Mills” 1905 Steinway upright piano, named for British stride pianist/singer Gladys Mills, and the two Challen upright pianos – heard throughout many Beatles’ records, such as “Lady Madonna” and “Fool On the Hill” – are still in use and available to any Abbey Road client. Other vintage keyboards like Hammond B3 and RT3 organs, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos and a celeste are also still available, as well as an original Ludwig four-piece drum kit similar to Ringo Starr’s and a collection of vintage guitars, basses, and amps.

Studio Two also has an echo chamber, located towards the rear near a fire escape. It is a concrete-walled, hard-tiled room designed before plate reverbs were invented. The presence of heating pipes adds to the reflections. According to Stiles, a favorite trick of Paul McCartney’s was to set up the drums in the fire escape alcove to record the drums adjacent to the echo chamber room, which caused complaints from St. John’s Wood neighbors!

The pipes in the echo chamber.

The pipes in the echo chamber.

The comparatively smaller and intimate Studio Three paradoxically sports the largest control room in Abbey Road. Best known as the studio where Pink Floyd’s landmark The Dark Side of the Moon was mixed and Wish You Were Here was recorded and mixed, it’s also the site of Amy Winehouse’s final recordings with Tony Bennett. More recently, it’s been used by Paul McCartney, Nile Rodgers, Brockhampton, Florence + the Machine, Frank Ocean and others.

Studio Three’s live room was designed for chamber music recording in 1931 but underwent significant changes during the 1980s. A few of the innovations introduced during that period include retractable acoustic panels that can be configured for either soft or hard reflections, additional isolation booths, and wiring to accommodate MIDI and other newer technical recording requirements.

Stiles recalled that during the making of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Syd Barrett, the burned out co-founder of the group and the subject of the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” wandered into Studio Three unannounced, creating an incredibly emotional session for Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright.

Studio Three sports a huge Solid State Logic (SSL) 96-channel J Series console. In addition to much of the same vintage gear found in Studios One and Two, Studio Three has an assortment of AMS/Neve Montserrat mic preamps,  AMS/Neve 1081 preamps, Chandler germanium transistor-based preamp/DIs, as well as an assortment of Pultec, Fairchild, UREI, Klark Teknik, Avalon, and other gear.

The Mix Stage is a fully Dolby Atmos Premier-accredited studio that recreates the movie experience with a large screen and theater reclining seats. It is fully digital and equipped for film dubbing, ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) and music and effects mixing, having been utilized for Bohemian Rhapsody, Dumbo, and Downton Abbey, among other productions.

The all-digital Penthouse mixing suite is also set up for Dolby Atmos mixing. It has been used mostly for film mixes on projects like Ocean’s 8 and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Music artists such as Brockhampton and Nile Rodgers also enjoy music mixing in the Penthouse.

Ironically, during the tour the Penthouse contained a piece of analog history. The sole analog machine in the Penthouse is a vintage workhorse ¼-inch Studer A80 for tape delay that is still in use. Machines like this are used to create tape delays and ADT (automatic double tracking), ADT was a signature Beatles’ vocal and guitar solo sound. As it is located on the top floor of the building, the Penthouse is the only Abbey Road studio with a skylight.

The RS56 Universal Tone Control Unit, known as the "Curve Bender."

The RS56 Universal Tone Control Unit, known as the “Curve Bender.”

Abbey Road is also one of the most experienced and respected mastering houses in the industry. Its four mastering rooms are based around vintage EMI TG Series transfer consoles with EQ, compression and spreader filters. For additional processing, more modern Prism EQs and Manley compressors are available. The mastering studios’ vintage Neumann cutting lathes have been in long-term use; they continued to cut vinyl throughout the CD and download-dominant 1990s and 2000s when vinyl was on the wane, and currently are in operation nearly 24/7 thanks to the resurgence of vinyl over the last decade.

Within the corridors of Abbey Road, you can find the original Studer J37 4-track machine famously used on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and other Beatles records. Stiles refers to the Studer as a “beast”; it’s powered by over 100 (!) valves (tubes in US English) and is still fully functional. Next to the Studer J37 is the groundbreaking Abbey Road-designed RS56 Universal Tone Control Unit, better known as the “Curve Bender.” Massively heavy and mounted in a sturdy wood frame, it is arguably the first-ever studio-grade parametric EQ unit ever made.

The Studer J37 tape machine.

The Studer J37 tape machine.

Abbey Road’s Gatehouse is situated in the townhouse’s original stables, which were converted first into classical music editing rooms, then repurposed with a higher ceiling into a smaller studio for bands that require only a small space for live recording as opposed to overdubbing and mixing. The Gatehouse offers the full microphone and outboard hardware resources of Abbey Road in a control room-based production suite, built around an AMS/Neve 16-fader BCM10/2 Mk2 desk with Neve 1073 and 1084 preamps. A Chandler EMI TG12345 console, Curve Bender and Tube Tech equalizers, LA-2A and 1176 compressors, API Lunchbox modules and other gear are all within arm’s reach.

The TG12345.

The TG12345.

The smaller live room has a Yamaha upright piano and can accommodate a 4 or 5 piece band, a string quartet, or other small ensemble. Artists such as Noel Gallagher, Ben Howard and JD Reid have cut records in The Gatehouse.

The last studio on the virtual AES tour was The Front Room. Designed for artists without a need for a live tracking room, it has an SSL Duality 24-fader desk and the identical speakers and digital audio workstation capabilities as the Gatehouse. Nile Rodgers and Chic, Kelela, and Jorja Smith are a few artists who have used The Front Room for producing records.

As Abbey Road’s Head of Audio Products, Mirek Stiles has helped explore Abbey Road’s presence into new technology areas, with research and development efforts being devoted to artificial intelligence, game engines and other innovations in audio technology.

With its landmark status and venerable history, Abbey Road Studios ranks among the most important recording studios of all time, a peer to other famous studio contemporaries such as New York’s legendary RCA Studios and the Record Plant. Sadly, the latter two are just a memory (although the Record Plant currently operates out of Los Angeles), but Abbey Road Studios appears to be well-situated to continue its reputation for excellence through its centennial anniversary and beyond.

Original REDD .17 console.

Original REDD .17 console.

All images courtesy of Abbey Road Studios.

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