Interview: The recording history of Abbey Road

(Image credit: Beth A. Keiser/Corbis)

In celebration of the event, 80 Years Of Recording At Abbey Road Studios - hosted by the authors of the Recording The Beatles book, Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan - we caught up with Brian Kehew and asked a few of our own questions about those early days of recording history.

First of all, tell us a bit about yourselves and how you came to become the experts on recording at Abbey Road.

"Both Kevin Ryan and I are multi-tasking; we're musicians, engineers, producers, writers. In our work, it was so common to realise that The Beatles' work was special, not just in a 'The Beatles are popular' way, but relative to the serious work of engineering and production.

"Independently, we both started to research books on how the records were made. We met along the way and joined forces, which was definitely needed for such a massive task.

 The trouble was, most of the information was not kept nice and tidy in a file cabinet.

"So we used every possible resource - people, photos, tapes, written records, etc. It took us all over the world, as some pieces were in Amsterdam, and other pieces were in Australia!

"In actuality, the staff often wore white lab coats over their nice suits and ties when setting up..."

"As we worked, we became fascinated by the whole of EMI Studios London's history [Abbey Road]. Much of the equipment and staff working for The Beatles were from an earlier era. There were influences from classical music, the big band era - many things that the studios and staff had already done.

"As we dug deeper, we found more and more from earlier (and later) eras. There are certainly many people who know a good bit of EMI recording history, but we've worked quite hard to uncover new and unseen things specifically for this lecture."

What would you say the biggest myths are around some of the recording sessions at Abbey Road, especially The Beatles' sessions?

"Most people have heard the stories about the recording staff wearing white lab coats. It did happen, in a way, but you'll not really find a photo of George Martin or one of the recording engineers wearing one. The truth, as it does, got a bit distorted over time.

"In actuality, the staff often wore white lab coats over their nice suits and ties when setting up, as the floors and cables/leads were often dirty. So this protected one's dress suit when setting things out for the day. Those who didn't have to work on equipment weren't needing the lab coats.

"Blue Jay Way may be the most technically challenging recording The Beatles ever did, as it uses all the tricks The Beatles are famous for..."

"We are told the lab coats were let go entirely, as were the old dress codes for the staff, right around 1969. On that day, the engineers went around signing each others' coats! We've never found one of the signed coats, but what an artefact of history - and Abbey Road mythology - that would be!

It's fair to say Abbey Road was technically one step behind many of the big American studios at the time. Which tracks pushed the studio to its limits and how?

"Tomorrow Never Knows is one of the most forward of The Beatles' tracks technologically. It uses many of the tricks they'd been championing, and in a musical way. Tape loops, filtered sounds; even the style of the music was ahead of its time for pop, as it's a trance piece.

"Their tape loops included a lot of processed and 'found' sounds, and they used them beautifully to create music as a collage. The mix desk itself was used as an instrument, with them fading parts in and out as one does with keys on a keyboard.

"Blue Jay Way may be the most technically challenging recording The Beatles ever did, as it uses all the tricks The Beatles are famous for: vari-speed recording, filtering, artificial doubling, flanging, echoes, sounds through the spinning Leslie speaker. Have a listen - it's really complex.

"The best bit may be the backing vocals, which were played in reverse through the spinning speaker (called a Leslie), then recorded onto the forward track, fading them up now and then. Supposedly it nearly ruined the Leslie speaker, it was so loud!

"Most musicians were not comfortable even moving a microphone, and certainly the studios forbade it for good reason."

"Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon was recorded at Abbey Road studios by Alan Parsons. It's the second-best selling album of all time. Us And Them is a well-known track with a long delay on the main vocal tracks, giving it a great lazy feel. At the time, studio effect technology did not have an easy way to do this, as we do now.

"Knowing that a tape machine can create a short time delay, Parsons fed the vocal part into an eight-track recorder, with each track patched successively into the next, each one inducing a small delay. With careful preparation, the timing was perfect, and the voices repeat on the beat each time.


If you could time travel one piece of modern studio kit (hardware or software) back to those sessions, what would it be and why?

"I think a sampler, when used creatively, is an amazing instrument. Most people use samplers to play horn parts now, or sample drum loops. That's not creative - but in the right hands, it can be used to turn normal everyday sounds into music.

"In the '80s, people like Peter Gabriel were using samplers to create new sounds, not replicate old ones. In the '50s and '60s, many people were doing experimental music, and The Beatles even took that into the mainstream with Tomorrow Never Knows and Revolution 9; they were interested in sound sculpting. So with a sampler in their hands, we might get a track with sampled door slams, bottles pouring, steam noises - who knows?


How involved were bands in the recording, mixing and mastering back then? Would bands have much of a say in mic placement, and creative recording techniques?

"If you mean the 1960s and before, the bands had virtually no input on the technical side. Even some of the recording engineers were not very technical - yet. The studio is an intimidating place, with expensive fragile gear everywhere.

"Most musicians were not comfortable even moving a microphone, and certainly the studios forbade it for good reason. But as you grow comfortable in the studio - by spending years working there as an artist or engineer - you are less afraid of things like microphones and mix desks.

"It was in this era that artists like The Beatles and others like Kevin Ayers took some control during their sessions. Now with home recording, many musicians learn the same things - the placement of microphones, mixing and mastering. It's still clear that professionals have an edge, as there is no substitute for training and experience - which the Abbey Road staff had without question!


What was the most ambitious recording project to take place at Abbey Road and why?

"Ambitious is a great word for this famous session: All You Need Is Love broadcast live to 400 million viewers on the first satellite link worldwide. It was done in 1967 for a show called Our World. Nowadays, this type of broadcast is commonplace, but the challenge was enormous.

"By the late 1950s, multi-track tape machines came along, allowing full overdubbing and layering of parts later."

"Television cameras were new to Abbey Road, although the recording situation was not.The pressure was unbearable, even for the band, who were quite nervous. They had already recorded the backing track, so only some parts were played live, but the performance was a one-shot, with no retakes.

"Looking back, everyone appears cool and happy, but in reality, it was certainly one of the most high-pressure recording sessions of all time.


Take us through a few of the technical milestones that occurred with the equipment at the studio and how this changed the way of working.

"When Abbey Road (then called just EMI Recording Studios) first started, everything was a live recording while a disc was being 'cut'. This was a full performance, and it made one side of a record, not an LP.

"There was no overdubbing or fixing later, it was just a pure performance. When an orchestra was about to play, the disc-cutting engineer had to announce over a telephone when he was starting the cut, otherwise time would be wasted on the disc, and it would 'run out' before the music had finished.

"As time went on, mono tape recording arrived in the late 1940s, about 20 years later. With tape, you could splice together the start of one good performance with the end of another, and fixing a performance became possible. You could even perform over a previously-taped backing, creating a new tape of the two mixed together. For the first time in recording, a perfect full performance was not needed!

"By the late 1950s, multi-track tape machines came along, allowing full overdubbing and layering of parts later. Even 'dropping in', which we often call 'punching in' now, where you record just a small part of a piece to make it perfect.

"Even with this technology, when bands recorded to an eight-track tape, they didn't use one track for drums and another for bass as we do now; they tended to group instruments together as they had before. They played live takes, full takes, and then used the extra tracks for layering overdubs later."

Are there any famous technical disaster stories?

"Every session had a young helper, which we would now call an assistant engineer. They ran the tape back and forth, pushed record and play, kept session notes, made tea. You've probably heard the demeaning expression tea boy used - it comes from those days.

"All of them were in great fear when 'spooling' the tape recorder (spooling was their version of rewind and fast-forward, but even more powerful and speedy at times).

 Spooling could make the motors run very fast in either direction, winding a tape back for playback, for example.

"In those days, tape was 1/4-inch wide, rather thin, and came as a 'pancake' - it was not housed between 2 metal reels for protection, as you may have seen in most studios. It was laid onto a flat metal platter and spooled back and forth, exposed.

"There were many occasions when the tape operator was spooling back at high speed, anxious to play a 'just made' recording for the eager conductor and expensive orchestra sitting in the room. And the tape would come loose, flying up into the air, twisting and even breaking. Not a good moment for a young assistant, as they'd just ruined an expensive, perfect symphonic performance! No names mentioned!"

Have EMI/Apple digitised every master track that went into their released repertoire, how is this done?

"Although The Beatles' records were made for EMI, Apple is their own label and in charge of the recordings, both released and unreleased. Yes, the tapes have been backed up, by playing them back on vintage tape machines; I guess all tape machines are vintage by now! But, The Beatles' material is considered so secret that their methods have been kept under wraps...

What's your favourite Beatles song from Abbey Road in terms of production and why?

"Good question, with an unusual answer. I'll Follow The Sun is mine. Not because it's tricky or clever, but because it just sounds great. I spent an entire day listening to The Beatles' catalogue to try and determine what would be their best-sounding track, from a standard of high-fidelity and quality of recording tone.

"Put it on and see what I mean. it sounds quite natural - a pleasing, warm and clear sound. A close second is Twist And Shout for making that mix live, first take, no fixing - perfect sounds and balances, and very rocking for 1963!"

How many people aside from the band were usually involved in a day's recording, and what were their roles?

On almost all EMI sessions, there were four assigned to the studio at that moment. The producer, the Balance Engineer (main recording engineer), the Tape Operator (the assistant) and a Technical Engineer.

"The Technical Engineer was a boffin, with serious knowledge of electronics and equipment. They may not have stayed on the session once it was set up and running, but were often called back in to repatch things or set up some change to the gear.

"It's odd, but in those days, the recording engineer was not considered 'technical' - it was more of an artistic position, in a way; they called it a Balance Engineer. Obviously, these Balance Engineers knew about microphones and the desk, but they did not allow them to connect compressors or patch the vocal microphone from track three to track four.

"However, The Beatles came to rule the roost in their later days. In the 1968 White Album era, they were almost acting as the producers. They called which takes they liked and often decided what approach should be taken, or who would come in to play.

"There were times when only one of the three main control room staff was needed - a person to operate the tape machine. The producer (George Martin), Balance Engineer (Ken Scott) and Tape Op (John Smith) would take turns operating the machine as The Beatles recorded, waiting for them to get the recording they wanted, while the others stepped out to chat, read, or have a drink."

When the studio was originally EMI Studios was it only EMI artists who were allowed to record there? When did that change and why?

"Initially yes, but there were exceptions. Certain American artists (big names like Fats Waller, Glenn Miller, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich) were on the labels which EMI distributed in the UK. As a favour, such artists were allowed to use the EMI-only studio in the '30s, '40s and '50s. The real change came about in the 1960s, when Studio Two was having fewer bookings, despite huge success of some EMI artists using it!

"In 1968 a new manager was brought in, and he really created a lot of change on all levels of the studio, trying to modernise it. One of his changes was to open the studios to outside artists, which many of the longtime staff hated. But it stuck, and the results probably speak well for his decision...


Take us through some of the greatest moments in Abbey Road's history.

"In 1931, the first performance at Abbey Road was Sir Edward Elgar, conducting his piece Land Of Hope And Glory, which is now often called Pomp And Circumstance. The performance was filmed as well, and it's interesting to see hundreds of empty seats, as they'd set up the room for an audience, but there were only three or four invited guests!

"In 1934, the first stereo music recordings of music and likely in the world were done in Studio Two at Abbey Road. It was a small group of musicians; they worked with different microphone settings and recording options to find the best sound. As stereo recordings were not released for another 20-plus years, it was far ahead of its time."

Tickets for the 80 Years Of Recording At Abbey Road Studios lectures are priced at £75 and available now from See Tickets.