Behind the scenes at Abbey Road Studios
LONDON – After spending a day touring the backstage of Abbey Road Studios, it’s hard to know what good anecdote to start a story with.
It could be about hearing how, just days ago, a studio rehearsal session was interrupted by the sound from another studio of someone pounding The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” on the very piano. used in the original song and that person turned out to be Paul McCartney. Or maybe it was walking down a random hallway and pointing out to my host that a four-track recorder placed unceremoniously against a wall was one used regularly by the Fab Four. Or maybe he was shown the collection of microphones and suddenly came face to face with the one frequently sung by McCartney and John Lennon.
If it seems like these are just Beatles stories, that’s of course no coincidence. This is the very recording studio where the band composed over 90% of their songs, and even the crosswalks here are permanently intertwined with Liverpool’s four mop dudes.
Which means, of course, that when you’re nonchalantly told that the relatively small room you’re in is the very one in which Pink Floyd recorded “The Dark Side of the Moon” and Lady Gaga did “Born This Way”, you Im impressed, but not the Beatles impressed.
Abbey Road Studios was launched in November 1931. And that means it turns 80 this fall. Still, the place shows no signs of slowing down. These days it’s used all the time by Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Taylor Swift and many of the big names in classical music, and it’s where music is composed for a wide range of films, including the most of the “Harry Potter Series”, the “Lord of the Rings” series, all but the original “Star Wars” movies, and many more.
I would come as part of road trip 2011, but when I approached the building for my appointment, I was confused. Currently, the front of Abbey Road Studios is completely obscured by scaffolding, so I wasn’t sure I made it. I should have been, though. Just outside, one random person after another trotted through the crosswalk, smiled, and posed for a photo.
Obviously this is a place that means a lot to a lot of people from a lot of places. And while these are primarily Beatles fans, Abbey Road Studios makes a lot of sense, even to those not just in the music business, but even to those who literally grew up prowling its illustrious halls. .
I had the opportunity to ask Giles Martin, son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin and a man who enjoyed his own success, including as producer of the Cirque du Soleil-Beatles collaboration soundtrack “Love “, what Abbey Road Studios means to him.
After all, his mother started working there in 1948 and his father in 1950. Indeed, they met on the job, and in 1969 young Giles Martin was welcomed into the world. And these days, he has his own private mixing studio right next door – accessible via a connecting passage – and apparently manages the building.
“It means the same to me as all the people [lining] up to the pedestrian crossing [crosswalk]”, Martin said without hesitation. “It’s magic.”
“You have to do something at Abbey Road Studios”
My main host for the day was Simon Rhodes, a sound engineer with 25 years working at Abbey Road studios who has worked with just about everyone and who mixed the score (albeit in Los Angeles) for “Avatar “.
During part of my visit I was also shown around by studio manager Colette Barber, who pointed out that while most people only think of The Beatles when they think of Abbey Road Studios, everything has started with the performance of “Pomp and Circumstances” by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1931 by Edward Elgar. It was also the musical home of Shostakovich, Placido Domingo, and more recently Sting, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, and more. As Rhodes said, the studio welcomed “everyone who was anyone in the music business”.
I spent a few minutes sitting in front of the digital mixing console in the “penthouse”, a super fancy room used mostly for film music, and watched a promotional video about the studios featuring a who’s-who of the company. In it, accomplished rocker Chris Rea put it succinctly, “If you love music, you gotta do something at Abbey Road Studios.”
As I walked through the building, Rhodes showed me some of the best rooms in the house: Studio 1, where orchestras recorded and movies scored, with its 40-foot-tall ceiling and the aura of musical royalty ; Studio 3, where Pink Floyd did “Dark Side” and Lady Gaga wrote “Born this Way”; the microphone room, where Lester Smith oversees a collection of hundreds of the most venerable and valuable microphones in the business, and even some of the hidden gems like a dusty little room on the roof of the building where the reverb plates are stored, as well as a random collection of other musical accessories.
But Rhodes told me the place had a “vibe,” and when we walked through the beautiful Studio 2 mixing room, I asked if that was where the vibe was. No, Rhodes told me, it was brewing. And indeed, through another door, we entered Studio 2, the room where the Beatles recorded dozens of their songs, and which in some ways is considered the band’s studio. “The mood is here,” Rhodes said softly.
And why have Abbey Road Studios been a mainstay of the music recording world for so long? It undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that it has been owned from the start by EMI, the music publishing giant, and the fact that it has for decades been made up of some of the engineers, mixers and other professionals the most talented in the industry.
But it’s also because the place is packed with the best equipment in the business: new state-of-the-art mixing desks and ones that have been around since the 1970s and can still produce the highest quality sound. There’s the “Toy Closet”, a great collection of recording gear that’s shuffled around the building as needed. And then there’s Lester Smith’s collection of hundreds of microphones, “my lovely mics,” as he calls them, including one made in the mid-1930s that he says is still used on all film music produced here. . And one of about 20 vocal mics from the 1950s that he says were employed by the Beatles. “I can happily say John and Paul used this mic,” Smith told me.
But in the end, Martin, who should know that since he’s lived here all his life, said it well when he talked about what it’s like for a professional producer like him to be able to spend so much time here.
“Being at Abbey Road, I can tap into the great engineers here,” or get a quick master’s,” Martin said. “You meet some interesting people, and it’s a great hub of artists and songwriters. The best people in the world come through here.”