Inside The Great British Recording Studios

Burning Down the House

The late arrival of an eight-track recorder led the Beatles, late in their career as a group, to begin exploring other studios, such as the second most important studio in England in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Olympic, where as Massey writes, the Rolling Stones set the roof on fire during the recording of their landmark 1968 song “Sympathy for the Devil,” thanks to hot film lights Jean-Luc Godard’s crew had setup to record his documentary on the song's making. Also featured is Trident, where the Beatles recorded another landmark song, “Hey Jude” in 1968, with Paul McCartney playing Trident’s hallmark 19th century hand-built Bechstein grand piano.

Going Mobile

After touring nearly 40 well-known past-and-present fixed British studio installations, near the back of the book, Massey discusses how the mobile recording studio came to be. Thanks to Mick Jagger’s keen eye on the Stones’ recording budget, the Rolling Stones Mobile was initially built in 1970 so that the group could record at Jagger’s country estate, rather than continue paying ruinous studio fees for what amounted to endless sessions in search of the perfect rhythm track. The Stones’ “Mighty Mobile” became a revenue generator in its own right as both rival groups and even the BBC rented the Stones' converted truck to record their live albums. Shortly thereafter, Ronnie Lane of the Faces got into the mix as well with an Airstream trailer he converted to a mobile studio. Jimmy Page would use both mobile studios to record several of Led Zeppelin’s classic albums, and Pete Townshend would use Ronnie Lane’s mobile studio to kick off the recording of their great 1973 album Quadrophenia.

While it’s packed with examples of how legendary producers and engineers stumbled upon the sounds you grew up with listening to Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd records, The Great British Recording Studios isn’t really a how-to guide for recording, though anyone who enjoys home or studio recording will walk away inspired to try all sorts of sonic experimentation. But speaking of home recording, today, in London (as well as other major cities), recording studios have become bifurcated, as a result of a confluence of increasing technological sophistication and rising real estate prices. While Massey writes that Abbey Road has rumors of closing (including EMI rejecting a 2009 offer of $46 million to sell the studio to a real estate developer), there’s still a premium to be paid for saying a superstar artist was recorded there, beyond the obvious beautiful sound qualities, of course. The same is true of other high-end studios.

But many of the middle-of-the-road studios and funkier dives that Massey profiles in The Great British Recording Studios, are no more, the result of real estate developers being able to generate higher revenues from a multistory apartment or condo block in London than a large purpose-built recording studio, and by the development of home recording technology.

The technology that Jagger and Stones road manager Ian Stewart fitted into a good-sized truck to go mobile is now available inside a well-equipped personal computer and sophisticated audio interface. It’s now possible to make a very good sounding record in a project studio -- particularly if the goal is to record a demo recording; drum machines and drum loops eliminate the need for a large room and scads of expensive condenser mics to record a drummer, and excellent samples of strings and other orchestral instruments are readily available. Guitar and bass modeling devices, and beautiful sounding hardware and software synthesizers fill out the rest of the band. A vocalist can be recorded via good condenser mic, a portable vocal booth, and a carefully-treated room.

But nothing will replace that magic feeling of walking into a dedicated professional recording studio with beautiful acoustics and a legacy of hit records behind it. For those who want to a (virtual) tour inside some of the best, The Great British Recording Studios is for you.

(Artwork created using multiple images.)