Road Trip 2011: Everyone has recorded there, from The Beatles to Lady Gaga to Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones. Now, what may be the most famous recording studio on Earth is turning 80 years old. And it's still going strong.
LONDON--After spending a day on a behind-the-scenes tour of Abbey Road Studios, it's hard to know which great anecdote to start a story with.
It could be hearing about how, just a few days ago, a studio rehearsal session was interrupted by the sound from another studio of someone pounding out The Beatles' "Lady Madonna" on the very piano used in the original song and that person turning out to be Paul McCartney. Or perhaps it was walking through a random hallway and having my host point out how a four-track recorder placed unceremoniously against a wall was one used regularly by the Fab Four. Or maybe it was being shown the microphone collection and suddenly being face to face with one that was frequently sung into by McCartney and John Lennon.
If it seems like these are all Beatles stories, it's no accident of course. This is the very recording studio where the band made more than 90 percent of their songs, and even the crosswalks here are permanently intertwined with the four mop-topped guys from Liverpool.
Which means, naturally, that when you are told nonchalantly that the relatively small room you're standing in is the very one in which Pink Floyd recorded "The Dark Side of the Moon" and Lady Gaga made "Born this Way," you're impressed, but not Beatles impressed.
Abbey Road Studios was started in November 1931. And that means that it is turning 80 years old this fall. Yet the place shows no signs of slowing down. These days, it's used all the time by the likes of Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and many of the top names in classical music, and it's where the music is scored for a wide range of movies, including most of the "Harry Potter" series, the "Lord of the Rings" series, all but the original "Star Wars" films, and many others.
I'd come as part of Road Trip 2011, but when I walked up to the building for my appointment, I got confused. Currently, the front of Abbey Road Studios is completely obscured by scaffolding, so I wasn't sure I had arrived. I should have been, though. Just outside, one random person after another was trotting into the crosswalk, smiling, and posing for a picture.
Clearly, this is a place that means a lot to an awful lot of people from a whole lot of places. And while those may mostly be Beatles fans, Abbey Road Studios has a great deal of meaning even to those not just in the music business, but even those for who literally grew up prowling its illustrious halls.
I got a chance to ask Giles Martin, son of the legendary Beatles producer George Martin and a man who has achieved his own success most notably as the producer of the soundtrack for the Cirque du Soleil-Beatles collaboration "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's got his own private mixing studio just next door--accessible through a connecting passageway--and seemingly has the run of the building.
"It means the same to me as all the people [lining] up at the zebra crossing [crosswalk]," Martin said without hesitating. "It's magical."
'You've got to do something at Abbey Road Studios'
My main host for the day was Simon Rhodes, a sound engineer with 25 years on the job at Abbey Road Studios who has worked with just about everyone and who mixed the score (albeit in Los Angeles) for "Avatar."
I was also shown around for part of my visit by studio manager Colette Barber, who pointed out that while most people think only of The Beatles when they think of Abbey Road Studios, it all began with the playing of "Pomp and Circumstances" by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1931 by Edward Elgar. It was also the musical home to Shostakovich, Placido Domingo, and more recently, Sting, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, and so on and so on. As Rhodes put it, the studio played host to "everybody who was anyone in the music business."
I spent a few minutes sitting at the digital mixing console in the "penthouse," a super sophisticated room used mostly for film scoring, and watched a promotional video about the studios featuring a who's-who of the business. In it, accomplished rocker Chris Rea put it succinctly: "If you love music, you've got to do something at Abbey Road Studios."
Walking through the building, Rhodes showed me some of the best rooms in the house: Studio 1, where orchestras have recorded, and films have been scored, with its 40-foot-high ceiling and the aura of musical royalty; Studio 3, where Pink Floyd made "Dark Side" and Lady Gaga laid down "Born this Way;" the microphone room, where Lester Smith oversees a collection of hundreds of the most venerable and valuable mics 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, along with a random collection of other musical paraphernalia.
But Rhodes told me the place had a "vibe," and when we walked through the beautiful mixing room for Studio 2, I asked if that was where the vibe was. No, Rhodes told me, that was coming up. And indeed, walking through another door, we stepped into Studio 2, the room where The Beatles recorded dozens of their songs, and which in some ways is seen as the band's own studio. "The vibe's in here," Rhodes said softly.
And why has Abbey Road Studios been for so long one of the mainstays of the music recording world? No doubt it has something to do with the fact that it's been owned since the beginning by EMI, the music publishing giant, and the fact that it's been staffed for decades with some of the industry's most talented engineers, mixers, and other professionals.
But it's also because the place is chock full of the best equipment in the business: state-of-the-art new mixing boards and those that have been around since the 1970s and which still can produce sound of the highest quality. There's the "toy cupboard," a stunning 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 mikes," as he calls them, including one made in the mid-1930s that he said is still used on every film score produced here. And one of the group of about 20 vocal mikes from the 1950s that he said was employed by The Beatles. "I can happily say that both John and Paul used this sound mike," Smith told me.
But in the end, Martin, who should know since he's been around here all his life, put it best 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 pressed," Martin said. "You meet interesting people, and it's a great hub of artists and composers. The best people in the world come through here."