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Producer Greg Wells Talks Inside Abbey Road Sessions

Avid and Abbey Road Studios are in the midst of a year-long collaboration, one that includes the webseries Inside Abbey Road Studios, which was shot over the course of three hectic days as Grammy-winning producer Greg Wells worked with up-and-comers Strangefruit. We talked with Wells to find out what the experience was like, working with a new band under the gun with cameras recording every move.

Producer Greg Wells (left) and Strangefruit, during the Inside Abbey Road Studios sessions, part of a collaboration between the studio and Avid.

Strangefruit, a new British band invited to kick off a year-long collaboration between Avid and Abbey Road Studios, last month released an acclaimed debut EP, Between the Earth and Sea, that included a track recorded and mixed at the legendary studio in late December. The three days of sessions were filmed for a web series, Inside Abbey Road Studios.

Avid and Abbey Road teamed Strangefruit with Grammy-nominated producer Greg Wells. Not only did the producer and band record in the same Studio 2 that was home to all the Beatles sessions, they mixed in Studio 3, where Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was mixed.

It wasn’t all retro though, as the project made full use of Avid’s latest HDX system with HD-series I/O toolset. Strangefruit already was using Pro Tools at the band’s home studio recording all its rehearsals straight to multitracks, portions of which were utilized in the three days of Abbey Road sessions.

“We lifted the tempo map into the Abbey Road session, which helped massively when tracking, as there were no surprises,” explains Strangefruit guitarist/co-songwriter Jamie Perrett, whose dad Peter Perrett was leader of early 1980s New Wave band, The Only Ones (“Another Girl, Another Planet”). “Abbey Road has a magical aura to it and the equipment still sounds incredible. A lot of credit has to go to the technicians. It’s a playground for musicians and producers,” Jamie Perrett adds.

Strangefruit’s home studio is also where other recording history was made, such as Elvis Costelllo’s My Aim Is True and Dire Straits’ initial hit “Sultans of Swing.” Perrett’s brother, Peter Jr., plays bass in Strangefruit, whose management is presently talking with the majors for a deal.

Greg Wells talked with Pro Sound News about working with Strangefruit using the same actual microphones and upright piano, colloquially known in the studio as “Mrs. Mills,” heard on “Lady Madonna.”

How do you approach working with a new artist in the studio?
Establishing trust is important from minute one. The studio is such a fragile environment and nothing makes someone more self-conscious than wearing headphones, where you hear every tiny noise your mouth makes. It’s all about helping them achieve something that none of us could get done on our own.

Is it any different from working with a more established, experienced artist?
I think sometimes establishing trust with more experienced artists can be a bigger challenge, because it’s much harder to make a second or fourth album when you’ve had success on an early release. They’re surrounded by more bean-counters whispering in their ears, and it’s much harder to listen to that quiet humble voice that inspired them in the first place which led them ultimately to having a record deal.

Anything strike you about Strangefruit when you first heard their demo?
Jenny Maxwell’s amazingly rich voice was the first thing that got immediate notice, and then the quality of musicianship accompanying her. I feel the song we worked on, “Tell Me,” is an excellent piece of songwriting.

What was the process for their session at Abbey Road?

Because we knew we would be on a strict clock whilst being filmed constantly by a camera crew, we had all agreed to be overly rehearsed and prepared for the recording session. I wanted to leave some time for experimentation, which we got to on the second day, but it was tight. The band showed up ready to hit the ground running with an arrangement we’d all agreed on—their excellent musicality helped the process immeasurably and nothing really slowed us down.

Did they appear intimidated at all working at such hallow ground?
We were all quite aware of where we were—it’s Mecca for recorded music. I truly believe it’s the world’s finest recording studio with the best staff anywhere to be found. It’s quite the experience working there. Very spoiling. But our excellent engineer, Chris Bolster, put everyone at ease and we got to work, immediately getting sounds. That momentum didn’t give us too much time to geek out about our surroundings.

How often had you worked at Abbey Road previously (i.e., any famous tracks for specific artists)?
I had worked there six months prior on an orchestral session for an artist I’ve always worked with named Mika. It was my first exposure to the new Pro Tools HDX system, and between that and getting to work with an incredible London string section in the Beatles’ room at Abbey Road, it was a day to remember!

Greg Wells at Abbey Road Studios
Any cool, vintage Abbey Road gear, perhaps used by the Beatles, that you used for “Tell Me”?
Absolutely. We mixed in Studio 3 and they have one of the fabled Holy Grail TG consoles sitting against the side wall, fully patched into the patch bay. I saw it sitting there and couldn’t resist trying it on something. Once I heard what it did to the kick drum with no EQ or compression, simply running it through the channel strip, I tried it on snare. Then guitars, and then the lead vocal. We eventually put every element through it with the exception of the bass guitar. We all agreed it sounded better for that song as we already had it.

Do you have any particular go-to studio gear used on Strangefruit’s “Tell Me” as well as other clients?
I insisted ahead of time on a Neumann 47 for the vocal, but Chris Bolster handpicked a Neumann 67 that he thought would be great for Jenny’s voice—he was right. I always record a vocal with an 1176 compressor in line with another optical style compressor like an LA-2A or Fairchild. We used a Neve 1073 mic pre, and that’s pretty much been the vocal chain staple for me for 10 years or more. My favorite thing about gear like that is it all becomes invisible and you just hear the singer captured in the most glorious way possible. They jump out of the speakers.

What are you working on now?
I have some songs on the new Katy Perry album, which we are wrapping as soon as I’m back in LA. There’s some very interesting stuff on the horizon that I can’t mention yet. I’m enjoying watching the young band Twenty One Pilots get some traction in the U.K. with the album we made together last year. They’re amazing.