30 Aug 2023

The inside story of the world's most famous studio

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 30 August 2023

When EMI opened Abbey Road studios in 1931 it was the world's first full-service recording studio. It's now the last remaining such studio in the world, says music writer David Hepworth.

The studio and its interior are heritage-listed, as is the famous zebra crossing which the Beatles strode across on their 1969 album of the same name.

Hepworth documents the 90-plus year history of the studio in Abbey Road: The Inside Story of the World's Most Famous Recording Studio.

The famous Beatles cover was almost dashed off, he tells Jesse Mulligan.

“The story was that as it was going to be the last album, they wanted to call it Everest. And they wanted to go and have a picture taken at the top of Everest, but that was never going to happen.

Abbey Road street sign made famous by the 1969 Beatles album.

Abbey Road street sign made famous by the 1969 Beatles album. Photo:

“And so, they said, 'instead, let's just go out on the zebra crossing', and they crossed the zebra three times. And I think took a total of six pictures and only one was usable.

“And that was very much it, kind of a dashed-off cover idea. But it ended up being the most memorable album cover of all time.”

Prior to the studio's opening in 1931 the recording world was much different, Hepworth says.

“People had recorded in concert halls, in churches, in hotel rooms, whatever. Whereas this was the first time that anybody had done this, that a company had done this.

“And then loads of other companies followed in his footsteps over the years and you saw Decca record studios and had CBS in New York and so forth.

“And then slowly, as recording has changed over the last 30 years, I suppose, those studios are pretty much all closed. And so, Abbey Road has gone from being the first recording studio in the world to being arguably the last recording studio in the world.”

Hepworth says he wanted to explore the idea of records in the book as opposed to songs.

“I think people tend to talk about records and songs as though they're kind of interchangeable terms and I don't think they are.

“I think a record is a different thing, a record has qualities that a piece of music alone doesn't have; a record has a kind of atmosphere, it has a drama, it can have gravitas, you can have all these kind of qualities, because it's cinematic in many senses.

“Because what people are trying to do with records is make you feel something.”

Abbey Road opened as a place to record orchestras and big bands, along with smaller studios for piano recitals.

"In studio 2, which was kind of the dance band studio in the 30s and 40s, that's the place that The Beatles subsequently came into in 1962. And that's the place that is still the most hallowed ground, I suppose to this day.”

The big studio is still used for orchestral work, he says.

Abbey Road book cover

Abbey Road book cover Photo: supplied

Two big technological changes coincided with Abbey Road being built in the pre-war years, he says

“The electrical microphone, which comes along in the 30s and that changes the way that singers sing, so you get Bing Crosby in the United States, you get Al Bowlly in the United Kingdom.

“And what these people are doing is singing very confidentially. They're singing into your ear. They're not projecting it.

“A very different form of singing from what have been around in the ‘20s, and so forth. People used to sing through megaphones, effectively.”

The other significant technological breakthrough was tape, he says.

“Just after the war, as a consequence of captured German technology, was recording on to tape, because prior to that it had been done direct to disk.

“And if you recorded on tape, you could edit.

"And you can hear that at its best in the early days in the ‘50s. Lots of legendary comedy records; The Goons and Peter Sellers, Flanders and Swann and all these things were all made at Abbey Road, very often under the supervision of a chap called George Martin.”

Martin honed his sound effects chops working on these comedy cuts, Hepworth says.

“He realised that the work wasn't finished when the artist left the studio, very often you carried on after you did things with it, you could add instruments, you can edit things, you could put sound effects on and so forth.

“And so, I often think that the true antecedent of Sergeant Pepper is Peter Sellers’ Songs for Swingin’ Sellers.

“He created sound pictures just out of what was available in the studio.”

David Hepworth

David Hepworth Photo: supplied

The studio was also a microcosm of the British class system, says Hepworth.

“The chaps who swept the studios wore brown coats, the chaps who delivered the microphones and the equipment wore white coats.

“The engineers wore sports jackets and flannels and ties, unless they were working at the weekend, and then they were allowed to not bother with the tie.

“So, it was very much, in many senses, it was like an old-fashioned school in lots of ways. And I think it still is in an odd way... what was amazed me is you step into the studio where The Beatles did all this stuff, and there's parquet floor. It's like a school gymnasium from the 1950s.”

Despite  the stuffy, public school atmosphere, magic happened at Abbey Road, Hepworth says.

“George Martin, was a trained musician and guys like Ken Townsend and loads of others, who are kind of what you might call boffins, who would come up from the cellar with a soldering iron in their top pocket and would work out a way to wire up this thing to that thing, to try some mad scheme that had never been tried before.

“Ken Townsend invented, famously, electronic double tracking, just so that John Lennon, who hated his own voice, didn't have to go and repeat or double track it himself.

“He came up with it with this thing, which George Martin explained to him in terms of, it's like flanging, which was an old joke from the Goons record.

“And that sound is still referred to as flanging by recording engineers in studios all over the world.”

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