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Abbey Road Studios: A Day In The Life

To most of you, London’s Abbey Road Studios will need no introduction, but just in case... It is arguably the most renowned recording facility in the world, made most famous by the Fab Four, who recorded eighty percent of their music here in Studio Two during the swinging ‘60s. And let’s not forget Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side Of The Moon, also recorded within those same four walls. The list of artists goes on, and on, and on... Today, under ownership of the Universal Music Group, the studio is buzzing, and as busy as ever. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film to be scored here in the late ‘70s, and Studio One in particular has become a real hub for that medium in recent years; many bands, old and new, are still clambering to record here.

On arrival, I am greeted by the very accommodating Mirek Stiles, who became Abbey Road’s first ever runner back in 1998 before moving on to assistant engineer, then engineer. Today, he heads up the audio products department, a key role, which suits him down to the ground.

“I’ve dabbled in engineering, working on a lot of projects: films, rock and pop, a bit of everything, really,” he explains, as we make our way to the canteen, where the entire LSO orchestra seem to be having a tea break. Plan B it is, then: the coffee machine, and then through the rather glorious garden area to an outbuilding.

“Abbey Road used to have an interactive department, things like DVD, Blu-Ray, interactive tech, and I was interested in that as well; and after the engineering, I just wanted to get some control – and sleep - back in my life! When the head of audio products role came about, I already had the studio background and the project management experience, so for me, it was the best of both worlds. I work with the software, plugins, samples, and I look after the hardware too.”

I admit to Stiles that I feel a sense of nostalgia and a kind of unique energy about the place, then ask him if I am, in fact, going mad?

“[laughs] No, it is a very creative hub, and that’s how we want to perceive ourselves, really,” he smiles. “Four hundred thousand people come here each year, and we don’t promote it - we don’t even let the public in! So yes, I would say there is certainly a vibe and a buzz about the place.”

Onwards And Upwards

Conversation turns briefly to when EMI dissolved. Abbey Road was then owned by a private equity group, Terra Firma, which didn’t work out so well, but then Universal Music Group came to the rescue. I say rescue, but it’s never actually been in the doldrums, has it?

“No, not since I’ve been here,” Stiles assures me. “It is great being owned by a music company again, though, and Universal [Music Group] are really behind Abbey Road, and are investing a lot back into the studios. There has always been a constant flow of work here: a lot of film scoring; and mastering has always been chock-a-block, though I do hear stories of some darker times, when Studio One was dead in the late ‘70s. People tell me badminton and five-a-side football was going on in there, and there were even plans to divide it into four pop studios with underground parking facilities! Thankfully, the manager at the time, Ken Townsend, stepped in and put a stop to that. A scoring company called Anvil were losing their scoring stage, and Ken suggested Abbey Road join forces with them, and that’s when the whole film thing really started happening.”

Today, Abbey Road has many departments: studio, post production, marketing, online, audio products, and the tech department, to name a few. It’s like one big, happy family.

“It’s great, because we’re all under this one roof working together as a team,” Stiles concurs. “The studio actually opened back in 1931, and the doors you walked in today are of number five Abbey Road, the old house that was built in the 1870s. Everything behind that, including the studios, didn’t exist. That’s what attracted HMV to the site all those years ago: a quietish area, close to central London, with this massive plot of land behind it. And all this history, even the deeds to the house - little gems like that - is housed in a massive archive in Hayes, along with all the old master tapes, bits of kit, and documents from back in the day. It’s like an Aladdin’s Cave!”

Aladdin’s Cave

This sounds very interesting... And it is. The huge ‘cave’ is not only bearer of the Abbey Road legacy, it’s been key in the development of some super-authentic plugins.

“Abbey Road had released a few plugins off its own back, but what the team wanted to do was expand the sample side, getting into using the rooms and the instruments,” Stiles explains. “When I took over the [audio products] department, we were already talking to Waves about a partnership, and since the first product, I’ve been involved one hundred percent, liaising directly with the Waves guys on creating our Abbey Road plugins.”

The first plugin Abbey Road worked on with Waves was a bit of an experiment with King’s Microphones, and from there, they designed a series of classics including the REDD Desk, the RS56 Passive EQ (Curve Bender), the EMI TG12345 console plugin, and even an ADT plugin.

“There are some quirky, funky things here at Abbey Road, and some classic bits of gear with a very unique sound, and to us, it was important to get that out to a wider audience, to preserve our legacy,” says Stiles. “Up until plugins, this gear was only available to people with a lot of money to spend, or that came here and worked. But we still have all the gear, all the schematics, and now an amazing line of products, thanks to our collaboration with Waves.

“Just as an example, the ADT plugin we released, to get that out to the wider audience is just great, because there have been some misconceptions about what ADT is, and it’s very difficult to recreate, unless you have a Studer J37 and a VTR tape machine! We even used the original EMI tape they would have used back then, too. I went down to the archives, pulled out tape reels off each aisle, noting down tape numbers, and checking which ones still had some blank tape on that I could sample, and that’s what we used to create the ADT and the J37 Tape Saturation plugin, to make it as authentic as possible.”

Okay, so can you explain to our readers how you actually make a plugin?

“Sure. First, I’ll send the original schematics to Waves. Then, there’s the gear itself, where we have one of two scenarios. I try to ship stuff over to Waves where possible, but obviously shipping a J37 is completely impractical, so in these cases, Waves will send me some test files, and I’ll run those files through all the settings of the piece of equipment we’re working with. From there, Waves can do a virtual circuit build using the schematics, and then we compare their build with the test signals they’ve got, make sure we’re on the same page, and then they’ll send me their initial draft of the sound of the software. I’ll then A/B it to the original piece of equipment, and the engineers will listen to it here; it’s like a process of elimination until we tweak it, but it’s not a quick process, by any means!”

The Holy Grail

Our final stop is Studio Two, the moment I have been waiting for. As I push open the old blue door, I know I’m ticking one off my bucket list; then comes the ‘wow’ moment. This place hasn’t change in fifty years... Has it?

“Not really, no,” smiles Stiles, walking me through all the bits and pieces including the famous Challen and [Mrs. Mills] Steinway uprights that were used on so many classic Beatles records. “Studio One has changed over the years; it was once very art deco and a very dry room, but the acoustic is now way more lush with a much bigger sound, but Studio Two, where eighty percent of The Beatles’ material was recorded, has hardly changed at all.”

As we scan the remarkable echo chamber at the back of the room – the only one left at Abbey Road, and still in use today - Stiles continues to educate me on the incredible history of this famous facility. By the time it opened, Columbia, Parlophone, and HMV had joined together to create EMI: HMV had Studio One; Parlophone had Studio Two; and Columbia had Studio Three. So three former rivals were forced together to work under one roof! I take a little time to reflect on how this industry has changed so dramatically over the years, then begin the walk up to the Studio Two control room.

“Here’s our Neve 88R console, and the smallest control room in the whole place; we’re physically limited by the space, so it can get busy in here,” explains Stiles. “It’s a great sounding room, though, and we have the Pultecs, Fairchilds, and some of the old EMI gear in here, too. We’ve even got the VTR tape machine, which is really rare, at the back, and there’s some EMI tape in here as well. It’s pretty special.”

It really is... A few minutes later, as we make our way back down the stairs, Stiles informs me that the first ever stereo recordings were also done in Studio Two. I did not know that. Really?!

“Oh yeah, it was Alan Blumlein, a former EMI R&D technician, that actually invented Stereo,” he says, very matter of fact. “He was in a cinema theatre watching a film, and someone walked from one side to the other, and he noticed that the sound didn’t move, it stayed in the middle. His idea was, ‘why can’t we use two speakers, and pan the sound with the pictures?’ He did this back in the early 1930s! If you consider stereo records didn’t come out until the mid ‘50s, and even then, it took a long time for stereo to catch on, you will see that Alan was way ahead of his time - so much so that they’d not only invented stereo, they’d worked out how to record it, the correct mic technique and disk cutting technique, and they still didn’t know what to do with it, so it got filed away! Amazing history, and incredible minds, eh?”

I concur. Long live Abbey Road, and its truly spellbinding legacy.