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The Road to History: Inside Abbey Road Studios

by Christopher Walsh. 'We were four guys," John Lennon said of the Beatles. Strictly speaking, that is an accurate statement. But within the four walls of Abbey Road Studio Two, those four guys--"just a band," Lennon said in those same remarks--started a revolution that continues to influence all that came after them.

Abbey Road’s Studio 2, where the Beatles recorded the majority
of their music between 1962 and 1969. Probably the most famous
studio in the world, Studio 2 at Abbey Road has been the site
of incalculable technical and creative innovation.

by Christopher Walsh.

‘We were four guys,” John Lennon said of the Beatles. Strictly speaking, that is an accurate statement. But within the four walls of Abbey Road Studio Two, those four guys–“just a band,” Lennon said in those same remarks–started a revolution that continues to influence all that came after them.

Here in leafy and unassuming St. John’s Wood, four brilliant artists tore up the rules and created a body of work that is unlikely ever to be surpassed. To our great fortune, the Beatles were signed to EMI’s Parlophone label and thus paired with this studio, its engineering staff, and the equipment designed and built within. Results of this pairing were re-introduced to the world earlier this month with the release of the Beatles’ catalog, remastered at Abbey Road Studios.

For a fan of the Beatles or of popular music–or, as evidenced by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew’s Recording the Beatles, of sound recording–one’s life is incomplete until beholding Abbey Road Studios. To stand and simply listen in any of its studios is a sublime and, at least to some, religious experience.

Abbey Road does not offer tours of the facility, contrary to popular belief. It remains not only a functioning, but a thriving studio complex, offering recording, mixing and mastering of orchestral and film score as well as all manner of pop and other genres of music. Abbey Road has recently launched its Online Mastering service, offering to all the opportunity to have recordings mastered onsite by its award-winning engineers. And the Abbey Road Plug-Ins, a line of software products that emulate the studios’ own revered hardware, have gained an enthusiastic, global customer base in a few short years.

As if that weren’t enough, the world’s oldest recording studio complex–its 75th anniversary came in 2006–serves other contemporary needs such as DVD authoring and interactive design, as well as asset management and location recording.

And Abbey Road is famous for quite a bit more. “Many famous artists have recorded in Abbey Road over the years,” says longtime studio manager Colette Barber, “including the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Hollies, Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Kate Bush, Oasis, U2, Green Day, Take That, Pet Shop Boys, Josh Groban, Dido, Jon Brion and Stereophonics. We have also worked with some of the world’s most celebrated classical artists such as Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham, Herbert Von Karajan, Sir John Barbirolli, Maria Callas, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.

“We have been involved in film scoring from the beginning of the 1980s,” Barber adds, “and have recorded five out of the six Star Wars films with John Williams, the Lord of the Rings trilogy with Howard Shore, Braveheart with James Horner, and others such as Cold Mountain, The Golden Compass, Shrek, Chicken Run, Kingdom of Heaven, Prince Caspian, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, [and] Mummy 3 to name but a few. More recent film projects have included The Fantastic Mr. Fox with Alexandre Desplat, Amelia with Gabriel Yared and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince with Nick Hooper.”

Studio One, known for the live recording and global broadcast of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” as well as the aforementioned film scores, can accommodate a 110-piece orchestra and 100-voice choir simultaneously. Its control room houses a 72-channel Neve 88RS with surround monitor section and 48 channels of remote Neve mic pres.

Abbey Road’s Studio Two can accommodate 55 musicians for film scores, though it is better known as an ideal tracking room for bands–some 90 percent of the Beatles’ output was recorded in this room. Up a flight of stairs to the control room, one finds a 60-channel Neve VRP Legend with Flying Faders Automation. Throughout, one can almost hear the echoes of sessions past.

In Studio Three, a visitor finds a more intimate space that, in some ways, is the most inviting of Abbey Road’s rooms. Projects here include Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and early surround mixes for The Beatles Anthology, U2 and Coldplay. Studio Three features a 96-channel Solid State Logic 9000 J Series console.

A newer addition to Abbey Road is the Penthouse, a digital mix suite that has served film score, album and surround projects. The Penthouse houses a custom Neve DFC Gemini console. (It also includes an iso booth.)

Abbey Road’s eight mastering engineers are now busier, with the addition of Online Mastering. “Online Mastering enables producers and bands to upload their music to,” explains mastering engineer Christian Wright. “From here, Abbey Road’s mastering engineers download the audio and master to their usual high standard. Using the wealth of experience and equipment, both vintage and modern analog outboard gear coupled with the very best in modern digital equipment, the client has the opportunity for their music to pass through top-quality equipment and have their music sonically enhanced by Abbey Road’s vastly experienced mastering engineers.

“Every Online Mastering session is approached with the same professional attitude by our engineers,” Wright continues. “One of the most important aspects of mastering is knowing how little or how much of a sonic change to make to the audio of your mastering. Our job is to make your music sound better, and we always strive to do this to the best of our ability.”

Though in is infancy, artists and audio professionals seem keen to take advantage of Abbey Road’s Online Mastering. “With services like this,” says Wright, “the proof is in the pudding and people have been very impressed with the tracks that have been mastered here. We see it going from strength to strength over the coming months and years.”

Abbey Road Plug-Ins was launched in 2004, offering “the tools to create, produce and perform music–tools based on Abbey Road’s legendary equipment, engineers’ expertise and studio acoustics,” explains head of audio products Glyn Roberts. “To date, we have released a limited number of products that faithfully re-create some of EMI’s most celebrated equipment, ranging from software plug-ins and hardware emulations of vintage EMI outboard gear, to samples of Abbey Road’s classic instrument collection, recorded using the original microphones, outboard gear and TG mixing desk in the legendary Studio Two.”

No other studio in the world is so closely identified with a legendary artist, an affiliation that has surely helped Abbey Road maintain its status as the most famous recording studio in the world. But no business is immune from external forces, as Barber acknowledges. “We are very aware of the pressure faced by professional recording studios,” she tells Pro Sound News, “and it is with great sadness that we’ve watched as other studios have had to shut their doors.

“The current climate is a challenging one for all of us,” Barber adds, “but there are still artists that want to record in a professional studio environment and at Abbey Road we attempt to maintain our relationship with artists by offering the highest of standards, both technically and in the level of service that is offered. Our main strength lies in the breadth of services that we can offer, including wonderful acoustic rooms where you can record anything from a 100-piece orchestra to 5-piece band, film/record a live performance with a live audience, mixing facilities for both stereo or surround projects, mobile recording facilities, technical excellence and some of the best recording, mastering and technical engineers in the industry.”

Abbey Road Studios

Abbey Road Online Mastering

Abbey Road Plug-Ins