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Abbey Road's Peter Cobbin on Engineering for Film

May 18, 2011

From The Lord of the Rings to The King's Speech, Peter Cobbin, senior recording engineer at London's legendary Abbey Road Studios, has helped create some of the most successful motion pictures in recent years. Peter took a few minutes off work on the latest Harry Potter movie to speak with Waves about his career and the story behind The King's Microphones audio plugin.


How did you get into engineering?

I've always wanted to record for as long as I can remember. I grew up playing and learning music, but always a little shy on the performance side. However, I was fascinated with recorded sound. As a teenager, I was in bands and orchestras and I bought myself a 4-track recorder and would record friends in my bedroom at home. When I left school, I got a traineeship with EMI studios in Sydney and studied electronics, while continuing to play music. So I got my foot in the door and started working in record production and have continued to do the same over the last 30 years.

What does it take to “make it” in audio engineering?

The overriding thing is a sense of determination. It requires knocking on doors and getting any experience that you can in any recording studio. That's what I was doing even when I was studying. It's about collecting all the experiences whether it's using a tape machine or a microphone, or in my day, transferring from a record player onto a tape machine. I think it's these sorts of experiences that, when you go for a job interview or you're up for something, an opportunity to do a job—having previous experience in almost anything that you can build on is a good thing.

What's your relationship with Abbey Road?

My career is neatly divided in half, so to speak. After my traineeship, I became a freelance recording engineer and producer in Australia. For the last 16 years, I've been here at Abbey Road. There was a manager who knew of me and asked whether I would consider moving over to London with my family to take up a position here. After giving it considerable thought, that's exactly what we did, and I'm still here 16 years later.

What have been some of the highlights of your career?

Often it can be the small experiences like working with unnamed musicians that is rewarding—they're playing something that sounds great, feels great and there's time to experiment in ways without expectations, deadlines or the pressure that comes with a large project. It's that sense of enjoying the music and working with it that is a recurring highlight.

In my position as senior recording engineer at Abbey Road, I've had some unique experiences. We were quick to adapt to surround technology and the first 5.1 mix that I ever did was the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's, I did the Yellow Submarine project when this film was restored, which was followed by mixing the Beatles Anthology. In addition, I re-mixed many of John Lennon's songs including Imagine, so on and off over a period of ten years, I was enjoying the spoils of an amazing legacy. For a recording engineer, Abbey Road is like Mecca, but having access to the Beatles master tapes, being able to learn so much from listening to those four track tapes has been incredible.

Aside from your technical expertise, what else do you think has been key to your success?

My job is about building up ongoing relationships. Mixing the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, working with Howard Shore, the composer, as well as Peter Jackson, the director, that went on and off again over a period of four years was fabulous. I mixed a series of concerts for U2 over a number of years—it's one thing to do the work, but it adds another dimension working with the artists over time. So whether it's a director of a film, a band coming in to listen to a concert, or recording a musician—it's not just the music, but the relationship of working with people, that is so important to a successful outcome.

What are you working on these days?

I'm producing the score for the latest Harry Potter film. It's the remaining film of the last book and the end of what has become the world's most successful film franchise. Alexander Desplat is the composer and the orchestra is the London Symphony Orchestra. The production team loves being at Abbey road and I couldn't do something of this scale without the collaboration and expertise of all my colleagues.


What's the story behind The King's Microphones plugin?

I've always had a fascination with old recording gear and have implemented the use of vintage equipment in my own style, my productions, and my own recording and mixes. The old gear offers a character and quality impossible to achieve using only new equipment.

When I first moved to Abbey Road, I was always on the lookout for retro equipment. We have been in business now for almost 80 years, and our parent company EMI has been for well over a century. We have an incredible archive that includes intriguing antiquities, memorabilia and equipment, which is overseen by the EMI archive trust. Many years ago, I went out to the archives in Hayes with a mission to bring back an old Abbey Road recording desk. On this trip, I happened to notice an ornate microphone on a shelf that was marked with a plate that read “H M King George V”. I was surprised—this beautiful mic was just sitting there, quite unassuming. So I asked the person in the archives if EMI made microphones for the British royal family, and she said “Yes,” but didn't have many details on it.

How did you come to use it for The King's Speech?

The French composer Alexander Desplat called me to ask if I would record the music for this small British film he was working on called The King's Speech. He arranged for me to see the film, whose central character was King George VI. We discussed what type of score would be suitable and as the film had an extremely modest budget, a small intimate production was going to be appropriate. As I was making my plans, I recalled my visit to the EMI archives years earlier. So I called them and said, “Look, when I was out there a number of years ago, I just happened to remember a microphone that was built for one of the kings.” After a search, they got back to me and said, “Yes, we've got a number of them.” So with their cooperation, I arranged to have those microphones brought to Abbey Road so we could have them on our session. It started as simple as that. I thought, “Wouldn't it be great to have the King's microphones at our sessions, even for visual inspiration alone.”

One thing led to another and, with the expertise of Lester Smith, our microphone technician at Abbey Road, we had three of them—King George V, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth—up and running. These mics had not been used for over 70 years and only ever by the royalty they were made for; I was excited to be recording with them! It wasn't until I was mixing, when I had the opportunity to see how I could use them, that it became apparent very quickly how individual and how unique these microphones sound.

How would you characterize their sound?

If anyone listens to an old microphone, compared to a modern microphone, the frequency range is much narrower. These in particular were actually built for speech—literally, the King's speech. They have a mid presence, much more so than a modern microphone, and that's partly to do with the fact that they don't have a significant depth in the lower frequencies, nor in the higher frequencies. When sound designers try to recreate recordings from the 1920s and '30s and '40s, they'll tend to filter out a lot high frequencies and lower frequencies. These Royal mics are authentic—they do this beautifully, without trying!

The King George V mic is slightly older by a number of years, and you can hear this older carbon granule technology compared to the others. It has a slightly higher noise floor and it is more pronounced in the midrange. I used that to my advantage when I was recording music through these; I had the two moving coil microphones, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, almost as a stereo pair, left and right of the orchestra, with the King George V in the middle, thereby creating an L-C-R. It's a technique called a Decca tree, so I took delight in calling it my “royal family tree”.

We were all astonished how unique and how wonderful and intimate it sounded. It's quite dry—to me it sounds more like a ribbon mic than a condenser mic.

Where are the microphones today? Did you keep them in studio or are they back in storage?

Abbey Road Studios and The EMI Archive Trust, who kindly gave us permission to use the microphones, have a good working relationship. They're normally stored at The EMI Archive Trust, but we have permission to use them, which is what we did again when we worked with Waves on developing The King's Microphones plugin.

What uses do you see for The King's Microphones plugin?

Well, here's the exciting thing: When I was actually recording and mixing with these microphones, I thought, “Wouldn't this make a great plugin?” In addition to the music I did go on to re-record the significant speeches in the film using these rare microphones. They just sounded so wonderful and the idea of a making a plugin reflecting the sonic authenticity and visually looking as elegant as they do was really appealing.

For those in audio post production, they'll probably think it's an absolute gem as they often have to recreate the sound of someone speaking through a microphone in that period.

But the applications are endless and, in some ways, I think it's more exciting to think of using these microphones in pop music. For instance, it sounds great on drum kits. It sounds fantastic on guitars. Putting the plugin across a vocal has an instant effect of making it more lo-fi and interesting—brilliant on vocals. These mics can now be used in ways never imagined. It will give most things the right royal treatment.