Inside The Great British Recording Studios
At the beginning of the 1960s, rock and roll seemed dead and buried, particularly in the land that birthed it. As the Washington Post noted in a 1987 profile of Chuck Berry, “Berry's Mann Act conviction was merely the last blow to the founding class of rock 'n' roll. Buddy Holly was dead, Elvis had gone into the Army, Little Richard had given up rock for religion and Jerry Lee Lewis had been ostracized for marrying his young cousin. There was no establishment conspiracy, Berry says, ‘but society had the chance to say ‘See, I told you so.’”
And yet just a few short years later, the British Invasion, spearheaded by the Beatles quickly followed by the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and numerous additional acts, re energized rock and roll on both sides of the continent. The Beatles in particular brought effortless songwriting chops and Everly Brothers-inspired harmonies with them, and a secret weapon in the name of George Martin, their brilliant producer and head of EMI’s Parlophone record label. Between Martin, his engineers and the Beatles themselves, they would revolutionize how popular music is recorded, and take what at the start of the decade was a very basic technology to newfound heights. The Beatles and the British groups that followed them brought with them a unique sound, very different from the American rock and roll recorded in the 1960s through the 1980s.
But can the elements that make up the sound of British rock be codified? In his new book The Great British Recording Studios, veteran music industry journalist and producer Howard Massey begins by attempting to run down the elements of the British sound. He quotes veteran producer Tony Visconti, famous for his work with David Bowie and T. Rex as noting that thanks in part to simple geography, the quality of microphones in British studios was better, with the latter studios’ preponderance of high-quality German condenser microphones. “It probably [was] cheaper to buy a German microphone [in England] than it would be in Germany. Telefunken and Schoeps mics — there's loads of them in England. I'd say the percentage of condenser mics to dynamic mics is greater in England than I've seen in American studios.” American-made guitar amplifiers ran on 110 volts, so British-built Vox and Marshall amplifiers, compatible with the English 230 volt standard, were more commonplace kit in British studios, and as Massey notes, “would eventually achieve an almost mystical reputation among musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.” British monitor speakers tended to have a larger low-end bass response than their American counterparts during the ‘60s and ‘70s, he adds. British producers from Joe Meek to Trevor Horn had a reputation for sonic experimentation.
Meet the Beatles—And Their Studio
And then there’s the role of the studios themselves. Massey’s 357-page lavishly-illustrated book progresses in more or less order of their historical importance, beginning with, not surprisingly, the British studio, EMI’s Abbey Road, the home of the Beatles throughout their run, to the point where they named their last album as a group after its address. (As Geoff Emerick, their engineer at EMI once noted regarding the iconic photo of the Beatles atop their last album, “For people who don't know the geography, they're actually walking away from the EMI Studios -- or Abbey Road [studios], as everybody knows it now…When I saw that photo, I did think to myself, ‘They're sending a message.’”)
During the many hours they inhabited the studio during the 1960s though, the Beatles found a facility with beautiful acoustics, and well-stocked with those aforementioned expensive high-quality tube-based German condenser microphones, but with some limitations: Because EMI management dictated that the eight track recorder they had purchased in 1968 be thoroughly vetted by their maintenance department before its use, Abbey Road was slow to update from four track to eight track recorders, despite their growing popularity in America, and the recording process’s insatiable need for more and more tracks. Because of the demand for additional tracks during complex productions such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album in 1967, resourceful Abbey Road engineers such as Emerick and Ken Townsend were forced to innovate; ganging two and occasionally three four track machines together to produce the intricate sound paintings on genre-redefining songs such as “A Day in the Life.”