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Abbey Road Studios Over the Years

May 21, 2014

The Beatles. Pink Floyd. Radiohead. U2. Kanye West. Adele. The Harry Potter soundtracks. All these and many more have been part of the phenomenal history of the world’s most famous recording facilities—Abbey Road Studios. From perennial classics such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, to recent chart-toppers such as Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ and Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’, the legendary studios have helped create celebrated works that continue to define contemporary music with each new generation.

Established in 1931 by EMI-forerunner the Gramophone Company, Abbey Road was the world’s first purpose-built recording studio complex. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the studios hosted historic sessions by the London Symphony Orchestra and luminaries ranging from Yehudi Menuhin, Pablo Casales and Jascha Heifetz to Paul Robeson, Glenn Miller and Fats Waller. In 1958, Cliff Richard and the Shadows launched their illustrious career and long collaboration with EMI producer Norrie Paramor when they first visited the studios to record ‘Move It’—arguably the first rock and roll song produced outside the United States. Other enduring pop classics recorded at Abbey Road during this era included Helen Shapiro’s UK no.1 ‘You Don’t Know’ and Gerry and the Pacemakers’ ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey.’

Peter Bown (left) and Norman Newell (right) sitting behind a simple 8-way RS70 mixer in the newly created upstairs Studio Two control room in the late 1950s.

It was later in the 1960s, however, that Abbey Road became the site of a musical and technological revolution, transforming recording itself into a genuine part of the creative artistic process. It was also in that decade that the studios became synonymous with the world’s most successful musical phenomenon—the Beatles. From the opening chords of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ to the final notes of ‘Her Majesty’, nearly all of the Beatles’ catalog was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, in sessions helmed by renowned producers and engineers such as Ken Scott, Geoff Emerick, Ken Townsend, Norman “Hurricane” Smith and, of course, Abbey Road lynchpin and “fifth Beatle” Sir George Martin, long considered the twentieth century’s greatest music producer. Together, the Beatles and their studio collaborators introduced influential innovations that would set the standards of musical production and the art of recording for years to come: from the sped-up tape loops of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ to the backward vocals of ‘Rain’; from the tape manipulations of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ to the seminal sampling of ‘I Am the Walrus’; from the tape synchronization techniques used to create the orchestral grandeur of ‘A Day in the Life’, to the artificial double tracking (ADT) heard on virtually everything the Beatles recorded from Revolver onwards. It was from Abbey Road’s Studio One that the Beatles broadcast their historic worldwide satellite television performance of ‘All You Need Is Love’ in 1967, and it was there that George Martin recorded his score to the band’s Yellow Submarine film. So strong was the symbiosis between the Beatles and Abbey Road that the band titled their masterful 1969 album after the studios’ address. The following year, the studios returned the compliment by officially changing their name from EMI Studios to Abbey Road Studios.

Over the ensuing decades, Abbey Road Studios helped produce countless landmark recordings, among them massive ‘60s hits by the Hollies (‘Bus Stop’, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’) and the Zombies (‘Time of the Season’); the larger part of Pink Floyd’s catalog, including such masterworks as Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here; acclaimed albums by erstwhile Pink Floyd engineer and Abbey Road staff alumnus Alan Parsons (with his Alan Parsons Project); and modern classics such as Radiohead’s The Bends. In recent years, artists including Depeche Mode, U2, Oasis, Sting, Elliott Smith, and Florence and the Machine have all benefitted from the studios’ majestic sound.

The house at 3 Abbey Road as it looked in the 1960s, with the old 'EMI Recording Studios' sign still above the door, the humble façade concealing the world's largest recording studio complex.

All these musical accomplishments would not have been possible without Abbey Road’s pioneering advances in recording technology. In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the studios worked with EMI to custom-build mixing consoles and outboard gear in order to meet the demands and ambitions of the studios’ engineers and the artists they worked with. The legendary EMI BTR tape machines, the REDD and TG12345 consoles, the 140 reverb plates and RS56 Universal Tone Control (the ‘Curvebender’), as well as Abbey Road’s special modifications to the Studer J37 tape machine—all have been the products of the studios’ technological genius. Most of this hardware was available for use at the studios only and was never sold commercially. Today, some of the original items are owned by collectors of rare vintage gear such as Lenny Kravitz and renowned producer Mike Hedges. This equipment, combined with the expertise of Abbey Road’s engineers and the studios’ unique acoustic properties, created what has come to be known as the ‘Abbey Road Sound.’

Since 1980, when the score for Raiders of The Lost Ark was recorded at the studios, Abbey Road has also developed into one of the world’s premiere locations for movie scoring. Blockbuster films such as the Lord of The Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter movies, The King’s Speech and Skyfall feature scores recorded there, while more recent projects include The Hobbit films and the Oscar-winning score to Gravity. A number of high-profile video games such as Titanfall and Call of Duty feature in-game music recorded at Abbey Road Studios.

Over the years, Abbey Road has become a site of pilgrimage for music fans from all over the world. Every year, thousands visit to sign the wall outside the studios and have their picture taken on the iconic crosswalk made famous by the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover. In 2010, the British government granted Abbey Road Studios English Heritage Grade II status in order to preserve the studios’ historic building and ensure that Abbey Road will continue to shape music history for generations to come.