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The legendary Abbey Road Studios had modest beginnings as a converted nine-bedroom townhouse. In 1931, the Gramophone Company purchased the property at 3 Abbey Road in London's St. John's Wood neighborhood. They sought to establish a recording facility close to other music publishers on publishing row.
The Gramophone Company was an early British record label that would later become EMI. They set up a studio in the building's largest room and called it the "EMI Recording Studio." It was a far cry from the sprawling complex Abbey Road Studios would later become.
The studio's first years were challenging. The primitive recording equipment of the time made capturing high quality recordings an arduous process. But the producers and engineers persevered and slowly improved their techniques. They experimented with microphone placement and learned how to enhance the studio's acoustics.
In the 1930s and 40s, the EMI Recording Studio hosted a range of performers. Classically trained musicians were frequent visitors. The studio captured recordings by famed conductors Sir Edward Elgar and Sir Thomas Beecham during this period. Legendary opera singer Dame Nellie Melba also recorded at EMI in the 1930s.
The studio began attracting more pop music artists by the 1950s. Renowned jazz musicians like Glenn Miller and Coleman Hawkins recorded classic tracks at EMI. By the late 50s, the studio was hosting skiffle and rock n' roll groups. The studio captured its first number one hit in 1954 with Lita Roza's "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?"
EMI continued expanding its facilities over time. More equipment was added, allowing engineers greater creativity. In 1958, subsidiary record label Parlophone took over a large portion of the studio. Parlophone's artists help cement EMI's reputation. Comedy legends like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan recorded popular albums there.
But EMI's biggest breakthrough came in 1962 when Parlophone signed an up-and-coming band called The Beatles. From Please Please Me to Abbey Road, the studio hosted almost every Beatles session. Their experimental techniques and pioneering use of new technologies left an indelible mark.
Abbey Road Studios witnessed firsthand the evolution from analog tape machines to digital recording. In the 1930s and 40s, EMI engineers used unwieldy wax disc and acetate disc recorders to capture audio. Tape recording technology represented a massive leap forward when it was introduced in the late 1940s.
EMI Studios acquired some of the first professional tape recorders in Britain including models like the BTR/1 and BTR/2. Tape recorders gave engineers much more flexibility. Tape could be edited and spliced together. Multiple takes could be recorded over one another on a single reel.
The Beatles took advantage of tape recording innovations during their time at Abbey Road. Their producers creatively recorded guitar and vocal parts on different tracks to allow for post-production layering and effects. Magnetic tape opened new creative doors for them.
In 1979, EMI Studios took a bold step by installing one of the world's first digital audio systems. The 3M system recorded audio on an encoded video tape format. It allowed for unprecedented editing flexibility in the digital domain.
Abbey Road Studios fully transitioned from analog machines to computer-based digital audio workstations (DAWs) in the late 1980s. Digitally recorded and edited audio could now be stored perfectly indefinitely without any generational loss. The switch to digital allowed almost endless creative options via software.
Many artists initially resisted digital recording. Some preferred the natural warmth of analog tape saturation. Others found early digital interfaces cumbersome. But the pristine sound quality and convenience of editing digitally eventually won most over.
Today, Abbey Road Studios combines its legacy analog gear with cutting-edge digital recording systems. Artists can choose between vintage EMI consoles and mixers or flexible DAWs like Pro Tools. Abbey Road's engineers creatively blend analog tones with digital precision.
The ability to edit and manipulate audio freely in the digital realm has been hugely liberating for artists. Many innovative popular recordings over the last decades would have been impossible on tape alone. From Radiohead to Lady Gaga, Abbey Road continues breaking ground thanks to digital audio flexibility.
Double tracking involves recording an identical take of a vocal track and layering it to create a chorus effect. The Beatles frequently manually double tracked vocals in the first half of the 1960s. But the process was time-consuming and impractical for certain fast-paced songs.
Martin worked with Abbey Road engineers to develop a novel way to artificially simulate double tracking using tape machines. ADT involved splitting the signal from the recording tape into two separate tape machines patched into the mixer. By lightly dragging the reels of one machine while recording, they created a delayed echo effect.
The slight timing differences between the original vocal track and delayed echo track produced the same immersive double tracked sound. But it could be done without the hassle of re-recording perfectly timed duplicate takes.
The Beatles first major use of ADT came during the Revolver sessions in 1966. ADT was liberally applied to John Lennon"s vocals on tracks like "I"m Only Sleeping." His dreamy, detached vocal delivery was massively enhanced by the chorus-like ADT effect enveloping it.
ADT opened new creative dimensions for vocal experimentation on psychedelic albums like Revolver and Sgt Pepper"s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Vocals could now be quickly bathed in trippy echoes and delays. The Beatles realized these warped vocal sounds perfectly suited the experimental mood of the time.
Other artists at Abbey Road like the Hollies soon picked up the ADT technique to thicken up their own vocal arrangements. ADT provided a way to efficiently double track vocals without great effort. George Martin jokingly referred to ADT as his "little gimmick" but it rapidly became an integral studio tool.
Once the creative genie was out of the bottle, studio engineers continued refining ADT approaches. Technical innovations like tape delay machines and later digital delay pedals built on the ADT concept. Artificial vocal doubling became a commonplace studio effect.
ADT illustrates how much innovation emerged from the productive partnership between The Beatles and their Abbey Road production team. Pioneering tricks like ADT fueled the studio"s ongoing reputation as a creative haven for envelope-pushing music.
Abbey Road Studios continues breaking ground with vocal effects in the 21st century. Their engineers now frequently use software plugins to digitally simulate ADT and other pioneering techniques first developed during the analog tape era. This allows modern artists to build on the rich sonic legacy of the past while crafting their own signature sounds.
The Mellotron occupies a uniquely mysterious place in Abbey Road Studios" history. This temperamental, tape-based proto-synthesizer/sampler left an indelible mark on iconic recordings like The Beatles" "Strawberry Fields Forever." Yet its origins and inner workings remain obscure to most.
Developed in early 1960s Britain, the Mellotron gave musicians access to lush orchestral sounds and textures at the simple push of a key. Its internal tape loops played prerecorded cellos, flutes, choirs and other instruments. Musicians could easily overlay these background sounds in their compositions.
The Beatles first encountered the Mellotron during 1965 sessions for "In My Life." George Martin used it to add a baroque piano solo to the track, wowing the band. From then on, the Fab Four constantly incorporated Mellotron strings, brass, voices and other textures into their work at Abbey Road Studios.
On "Strawberry Fields Forever," the Mellotron's eerie flute tones open the track and set an unsettling mood. The instrument also appears prominently on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album, shaping everything from psychedelic rockers to mournful ballads.
Many artists assumed the Mellotron generated its orchestral and choral sounds electronically like an early synthesizer. In fact, it relied on pre-recorded tapes and mechanical playback components cobbled together in a wooden frame. Keeping this cantankerous electro-mechanical hybrid operating reliably proved no easy task for Abbey Road"s engineers. The tapes were prone to breaking, stretching and warping. Keys and springs frequently jammed mid-performance.
Abbey Road eventually accumulated an arsenal of Mellotrons to satisfy demand from the Beatles and other artists. Engineers constantly tweaked and modified the temperamental devices to improve reliability during sessions.
Despite its quirks, the Mellotron"s charms proved irresistible. Bands like the Moody Blues adopted it as a signature of their sound. King Crimson, Genesis and Yes relied on Mellotrons to fuse rock with orchestral grandeur and progressivism on acclaimed albums. Elton John, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones joined the Mellotron bandwagon.
From baroque psych-pop to prog rock concept albums, the Mellotron left an undeniable mark on the Abbey Road Studios sound in the 60s and 70s. Its tape loops added new depth, texture and moodiness to productions even as synthesizers emerged.
Today the few remaining Mellotrons are temperamental vintage relics. But Abbey Road engineers still dust them off when contemporary bands want to recapture that classic analog magic. The studio also employs various plugins and sample libraries to emulate Mellotron tones digitally.
The mixing consoles designed by EMI engineer Bill Redd hold an almost mythological reputation at Abbey Road Studios. His rare REDD series of transistorized desks became the coveted centerpieces of the facility"s control rooms in the 1960s and defined the epochal Beatles sound.
The REDD desks marked a monumental shift from earlier tube-powered valve designs to solid state circuitry. This switch offered improved frequency response, lower distortion, and headroom flexibility that tube boards couldn"t match. REDD.37 was the first such desk installed at Abbey Road in 1964. It featured EQ designed by Redd to delicately shape sources with musical finesse.
The Beatles producer George Martin immediately recognized the REDD.37"s capabilities. He relied on its smooth EQ to add subtle gloss and shimmer to the band"s vocals and guitars. The desk's robust low end gave their basslines authoritative punch. And its expanded headroom allowed for creative track layering without distortion.
Martin considered the REDD.37 fundamental to sculpting the Beatles" studio sound from Revolver onwards. He remarked that the desk imparted the sheen and clarity their intricate arrangements demanded. The band wholeheartedly agreed. Upgrading Abbey Road"s equipment was essential for realizing their artistic visions.
EMI added more REDD desks as demand increased. REDD.51 became a favored mixer for classical and symphonic sessions. Artists like Glenn Gould and Yehudi Menuhin crafted acclaimed albums on the transparent, refined REDD.51. In 1969, the larger REDD.51 studio desk was swapped out in favor of the REDD.37"s superior sonics.
Over the years, myths arose claiming REDD consoles imparted some magical sound quality. But in truth, their greatness arose from thoughtful engineering and their expanded capabilities compared to earlier mixers. They simply gave engineers more tools to craft polished mixes.
Still, vintage REDD desks' reputation made them coveted items as they were retired. Only a few working REDD boards remained in Abbey Road Studios' possession by the 21st century. EMI's decision to scrap original REDD desks was painfully shortsighted in hindsight.
In 2017, Abbey Road placed the meticulously restored REDD.51 back in active duty in Studio Two to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of Sgt. Pepper"s. Engineers used the classic desk when remixing and remastering the album's sessions. Its renewed clarity and depth were startling revelations.
While the original REDD desks stay safely ensconced in the studios now, Abbey Road recently collaborated with Chandler Limited to design REDD Microphone Amplifier EQs. These modern recreations capture the tone-sculpting essence of those revolutionary vintage boards.
Abbey Road Studios houses an unparalleled collection of vintage and modern microphones. Engineers use this diverse mic locker to capture vocals, guitars, drums and other instruments with optimal tone and character. Certain classic models have become closely associated with the Abbey Road sound over the decades.
The Neumann U47 and U48 tube condenser mics are among Abbey Road's most prized possessions. Often used on vocals, these vintage German mics add silky warmth and intimacy to tracks. Sinatra crooned into the U47 during a seminal 1962 session that became the album Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain. Paul McCartney's soulful vocal on the Beatles' "Yesterday" also relied on the U47's flattering tone.
Another iconic Abbey Road microphone is the Coles 4038. It possesses an almost mythological reputation thanks to its role on Beatles' albums like Abbey Road. The 4038 lent Ringo's drums their lively, crisp Snap on tracks like "Come Together." This hand-built ribbon mic picks up transients with pristine detail. Engineers continue using 4038s when a bright, transparent drum sound is needed.
Dynamic mics are another Abbey Road staple. The Shure SM57 is a workhorse for electric guitar amp recording. Its rugged durability and mid-range focused sound makes it perfect for capturing biting guitar tones. The Who and Pink Floyd relied on SM57s to record searing guitar tracks in the '60s and '70s. The SM57 remains a go-to for guitarists today.
The Electro-Voice RE20 is the mic of choice for kick drum and bass guitar at Abbey Road. This sturdy dynamic mic rejects leakage while accurately capturing low frequencies. Metallica used RE20s on bass cabs and kick drums during their iconic Black Album sessions at the studio. When thunderous low end is needed, the RE20 delivers.
One unique aspect of Abbey Road is engineers' encyclopedic knowledge of when to use specific mics. Certain models have an ideal sound aesthetic for particular instruments and genres. The right mic choice can make a good performance great. Abbey Road's combination of legendary gear and engineering expertise gives artists access to exceptional tones.
The TG12345 mixing desk occupies its own special place in Abbey Road Studios" prodigious history. EMI engineers originally developed this large transistorized mixer in the late 1960s to handle the increasing channel count demands of bands like The Beatles. Its flexible architecture and pristine circuitry made the TG12345 an instant hit at Abbey Road. Artists flocked to use the spacious desk on countless iconic recordings from the 1970s into the "80s.
The TG12345"s seventy-two channels gave engineers exceptional creative flexibility. 8 subgroups allowed flexible sub-mixing capabilities ideal for crafting detailed blends. Abbey Road"s prior TG desk models only offered 4 subgroups. The TG12345"s expanded headroom and low noise floor also prevented distortion even when tracks were layered extensively during mixdown.
Pink Floyd"s Alan Parsons relied extensively on the TG12345"s capabilities for the band"s 1973 masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon. Parsons found it perfect for sculpting the album"s panoramic and effects-heavy soundscapes. From crystalline electric pianos to gilded vocal choirs, the TG12345 gave Dark Side a clear yet expansive sonic palette.
In an interview, Parsons praised the desk"s musicality and reliability: "It was absolutely bulletproof. It sounded great. I could push faders all the way up with all sorts of limiters going on during mixdown without it ever breaking down."
The TG12345 was later used for ambient art rock touchstones like Kate Bush"s Never For Ever and Peter Gabriel"s So. Tony Visconti mixed several classic David Bowie albums on the reliable console including Heroes and Scary Monsters. Echo & the Bunnymen"s Ocean Rain also relied on the TG12345"s transparent sound.
While EMI retired most TG12345 desks in the "80s, one remains at Abbey Road today. It sits proudly in control room 52, upgraded with transparency-enhancing John Hardy mods. Curve Bender 1176 FET compressors were also added to give the vintage console enhanced sonic shaping capabilities.
Contemporary bands still request use of the Abbey Road TG12345 when seeking analog warmth with modern power. Amy Winehouse"s Back to Black was mixed on the desk, benefitting from its vibrant yet precise tones. Adele"s blockbuster 25 also employed the TG12345"s unmatched analog clarity.
Abbey Road Studios has always embraced new technologies that allow artists to realize their creative visions. Artificial intelligence represents the next frontier in music production, and Abbey Road is actively exploring how AI can enhance workflows. The rapid improvements in generative AI models for music and audio offer intriguing new possibilities.
Abbey Road recently announced a partnership with AI startup Anthropic to explore AI-powered mastering and remastering. Mastering engineers at Abbey Road will work with Anthropic to train AI systems using the studios' vast archives of multitrack sessions. The goal is developing AI tools that can automate routine steps in the mastering process while still maintaining the nuance of human experts. This could significantly increase efficiency and allow engineers to focus on the most creative aspects.
The Anthropic collaboration has massive potential for preserving and revitalizing archival content as well. AI remastering systems trained on Abbey Road's catalog could breathe new life into countless vintage recordings. Machine learning algorithms excel at noise reduction, stereo field enhancements, and other restoration tasks. AI-powered remasters may allow listeners to experience familiar albums with renewed clarity.
Abbey Road is also dipping into the rapidly progressing field of generative AI composition. AI startups like Amadeus Code specialize in creating original melodies, harmonies, and instrumental arrangements using machine learning. The results mimic human musical intuition in uncanny ways. Abbey Road composers are experimenting with using AI generative models as creative idea generation tools. The AI suggests musical seeds and human composers shape the results based on their instincts and emotions.
While some view AI music generation as threatening to artists, Abbey Road sees it as an opportunity. AI simply provides new creative building blocks. Human musicians ultimately decide how to utilize these tools for expression. Abbey Road wants to empower artists by democratizing access to leading-edge generative music AI. The studios see themselves as curators guiding the responsible adoption of these emerging technologies.