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Peppermint condition: Abbey Road Studios in the 21st century

Phil Ward 17 July 2017
Peppermint condition: Abbey Road Studios in the 21st century

Phil Ward visits Abbey Road following the biggest changes since it all began

For the tourists milling about outside Abbey Road Studios, not much has changed. There’s still a dangerous zebra crossing on which to infuriate motorists by staging infinite selfies; the wall has had a topical lick of paint but remains a graffiti magnet; and music recorded inside 50-plus years ago still bothers the charts whenever given the chance. Which it regularly is.

But behind the black railings there has been an attempt to arrest the decline of commercial recording studios and make a breathtaking statement about the current recording scene, especially in London. OK, there is a shop – and whether there really are Sgt Peppermills on sale I don’t know – but throughout the rest of the limited site across this small acreage of St John’s Wood a dizzying number of innovations has catapulted Abbey Road into the 21st Century, and new recording space is not the half of it.

Institution

In March 2015, the Abbey Road Institute was launched as a training hub for music production, following the closure of Alchemea and new ownership for the SAE. In September last year Abbey Road Institute bought Studios 301 in Sydney; a series of annual lectures began in London focusing on the studios’ legacy; and an initiative called Abbey Road Red was launched to support the endeavours of audio technology start-up businesses against the backdrop of such esteemed heritage in recording innovation.

Around the same time, the most far-sweeping alterations and additions since 1931 were revealed in a plan that would complete the wholesale reinvention of the facility – all the while preserving, of course, the three original studios upon which the reputation, and the myth, have been built.

The money has come from Universal Music Group, the entertainment business giant that retrieved EMI and its iconic studios from the banker Citigroup and a period of considerable uncertainty. The promises made at the time of that deal have been most emphatically delivered, as the site emerges from developments that not only appear to guarantee a working future for the original rooms but also to make the whole complex the envy of the world once again and, crucially, a relevant option to all corners of production from cash-strapped independent artists to Hollywood blockbusters.

The three main additions include two smaller studios, called The Gatehouse and The Front Room, and the Mix Stage, a Dolby ATMOS-equipped showpiece that directly bonds one of the remaining orchestral recording spaces of world class with the means to complete a project for tomorrow’s more three-dimensional markets. Not that famous old Studio Two misses out, either: it finally gets two isolation booths and a new listening lounge, while what was the garage has been adapted into two more production suites.

To accommodate the Mix Stage, it’s been necessary to build out into part of the garden – potentially disconcerting for residents until you realize that they’ve been living with the protrusion of Studio Two from the very beginning, something easy to underestimate until, through the narrow staircase window, you catch sight of the robust shell that metabolised Sgt Pepper and all the rest even as the neighbours pruned the lavender.

The acoustic design of the Mix Stage – along with all the other new acoustic spaces – is the work of Munro Acoustics in collaboration with the Abbey Road technical team. “For ATMOS jobs we submit our initial designs to Dolby,” comments Andy Munro, “and they go into the architects’ brief. When it’s built, we do the acoustic testing – and for this room we built all the speakers as well – and then the Dolby engineers bring in their own digital engine that does the ATMOS programming. Because it’s an object-orientated sound system, in theory every speaker has to be capable of delivering sound anywhere in the space. The time delays and the reverberation are exactly specified.”

The 44 monitors, built at Munro’s facility in the UK, are an extension of designs perfected at Dynaudio Acoustics and Munro. “The surround speakers are a variation on the good old BM15,” Munro says, “still a very popular nearfield because it’s loud, accurate and not too expensive. The screen speakers are like those at Shepperton and elsewhere, with Dynaudio drive units custom fitted into our UK-built cabinets. I believe they chose our system because it is more like a traditional B&W or ATC soft-dome solution, but big enough to handle full-blown film mixing. Each one is nearly 100kg! The system also includes a unique, switchable horn driver for a more cinematic sound plus additional speakers for IMAX. It’s far and away the most comprehensive system we’ve ever built.”

Actual B&W monitors – very much the ‘house’ speakers at Abbey Road – also figure in a retractable 7.1 system. In addition the room sports a hybrid console fashioned from the AMS Neve DFC 3D formerly in The Penthouse Studio and an Avid S6, housed in a custom frame by Surrey-based Frozen Fish Design. Expert supplier HHB and colleagues from Scrub provided and fitted the Avid desk along with eight Pro Tools systems and copious AV accoutrements.

Westminster Abbey

The planning permission process to adapt this listed building was applied for in November 2013, and took three months to be acknowledged by Westminster City Council. Final approval came in April 2015. Just over a year later the completion of the first phase was confirmed by the recording in Studio Two of a song for the movie Legend of Tarzan, the audio swinging smoothly between the new iso booths, the old studio and the revered control room like the apeman himself.

Simon Campbell, head of technical services, is a veteran of Olympic and Townhouse, among other casualties of modern studio economics, and has been at Abbey Road “on and off” for 25 years.

“The ATMOS room has been built into an end of the garden that was hardly used, being in the shadow of Studio Two,” he explains. “ATMOS was clearly the latest thing in Dolby’s armoury, and our engineer Pete Cobbin [now freelance] made me aware of it even when the format was in its relative infancy. It seemed clear that if we were going to build a room big enough, we had to have it. It was a bit of a leap of faith for the business, having always recorded the music for film here and then passed it on to, say, De Lane Lea or Pinewood for the dub, but we talked around it and it stacked up.”

The Penthouse still exists as a small mix room, especially for TV and film, complete with new HHB-supplied Avid S6; as does Studio 52 built as a surround mix space for Sir George Martin and his son Giles as they developed the Love project for Cirque Du Soleil. It’s now occupied exclusively by Giles Martin, so The Front Room and The Gatehouse represent entirely virgin recording territory for a more democratic footprint.

“Although Studio Three was our smallest, it was still bigger than most people’s ‘Studio One’,” continues Campbell. “So if we wanted to offer real budget options we were going to have to build appropriately, and Universal were in complete agreement.”

Work on The Front Room was split between studio construction specialist Miloco Builds and Munro Acoustics. The Gatehouse acoustic design was carried out by Chris Walls and his recently established enterprise Level Acoustic Design, while the ergonomically crucial furniture for all three of the brand new spaces – plus Studio 52 – was supplied and fitted under Abbey Road’s remit by studio expert AKA Design.

“The Mix Stage is big, but it’s not enormous,” confirms AKA Design founder and MD Guy Wilson. “Because of the ATMOS speaker arrangement we had to do custom Pro Tools rigs in the corners, to keep the sightlines and the client seating. In the producers’ area we made a rise-and-fall combined coffee table and work surface, because there was a need for multiple use of furniture in this way – all solid and veneered walnut with leather nosing.

“The other studios had what are more standard control rooms for us nowadays, although fully customised: Abbey Road likes its outboard! To keep that feel of a creative space we did angled racks built around a control surface with lots of patching, but even that can be flexible and more room made available quickly. These were oak.”

So while the tourists dodge red buses as before, Abbey Road takes yet another pivotal turn. Around 1980, as the rise of synthesizers and other electronic alternatives to the orchestra conspired with increasing competition from SARM-style studios with bigger, densely equipped control rooms, the possible splitting up of Studio One into smaller spaces came up at a few nervous board meetings. But nerve held, helped by the demolition of orchestral film recording rival Korda in nearby Denham, and the decision to keep Studio One intact was sealed in a vital partnership with Anvil Post Production and ratified with the installation of a projector. The picture soon became a lot clearer.

“The core business of this place is recording, mixing and mastering music,” reflects Simon Campbell, “and the new spaces simply make more of that accessible. The heritage is unique, and we’re all proud if it, but there’s a new, younger generation of artists that we can accommodate and it’s going to keep this place alive and kicking.”

 

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