Abbey Road Meets... Ken Townsend

06 June 2013

Today marks the 51st anniversary of The Beatles’ first ever recording session at Abbey Road Studios, which took place on 6th June 1962.

In honour of the occasion we put your questions to Ken Townsend, who was an engineer on that very session and went on to manage Abbey Road Studios for over 20 years.

We were inundated with questions on Facebook and Twitter, and it was a tough call picking the best ones to put to Ken. Thank you to everyone who participated!

Here’s the interview in full:

What kind of engineer are you? - ‏@manyreasonsy, via Twitter

A long since retired one, now an octogenarian and currently building a wall and steps in the garden!

I was trained as a design and development engineer at EMI in Hayes, but moved to Abbey Road in my final year as a trainee, in 1954. My job title was then Recording Engineer, but what are now known as Recording Engineers were then called Balance Engineers.

What was your first session like? - ‏@chrisdmccullo, via Twitter

The first session I worked on was in Studio One with Peter Dawson, a very famous Australian Bass Baritone. When introduced to him as our latest recruit by Harold Davison, he shook me warmly by the hand and wished me a long and successful career.

What was your first impression of the Beatles? - ‏@manyreasonsy, via Twitter

Simple amazement, because I had never seen anything like them before.

Did the band seem to take to the studio quickly or were they very obviously "green?" – Josh Katz, via Facebook

Like a duck to water. They had auditions at Decca and elsewhere and been totally rejected, so it was not their very first time in a professional studio.

Which Beatle was the most nervous and which was the least? The studio can be intimidating the first couple of goes round! - Matthew Loman, via Facebook

They showed no external signs of nerves, in fact the opposite. Their sense of humour was similar to mine - constantly wise cracking.

They looked just like four peas in a pod and I could not tell one from the other for some while, except for Ringo when he took over from Pete Best on the 4th September session.

Which song sounded best on that session? - ‏@manyreasonsy, via Twitter

In hindsight, it was a toss-up between Love Me Do and Ask Me Why (as you have done). What fascinated me was that none of the lyrics seemed to include words of more than four letters.

Did you have any problems when recording [the first Beatles] session? - @VramaW, via Twitter

After running through the songs, it was obvious we were getting distortion from the bass guitar. Norman Smith tried the usual remedy of reducing the level in the studio and cranking it up on the mixer, but to no avail. George Martin said if we could not find a solution, then he might have to abandon the session.

We were strictly forbidden from tampering with artist’s guitar amps due to reports of electrocution of performers on stage, and the studio had no such equipment. I suggested a possible alternative of getting the large Tannoy speaker from Echo Chamber One and driving it with a Leak TL12 power Amp I had upstairs, which I was taking to Rome later that month for an operatic recording.

So while Tape Op Chris Neal and George Martin went to the canteen for a cuppa with the lads, Norman and myself carried this speaker to the studio and I then wired a jack socket onto the input of the leak pre-amp. By some miracle it worked, but I often reflect on what might have happened without this brainwave.

Did you ever feel at that time that the band would go on to become what they are now? - Nishant Shukul, via Facebook

Nobody in the whole wide world could have forecast what was to follow, as it had never happened before. Some artists such as Johnny Ray had received huge adulation from their fans, but the Beatles’ rise to fame across the globe was meteoric and unprecedented. I doubt it will ever be repeated.

Did the session feel magical at the time or only in hindsight? - @Notebookscrawla, via Twitter

Immediately after the session, I could not stop talking about them to my family and friends. This was most unusual, as we were working at Abbey Road with the greatest recording artists in the world on a daily basis and rarely mentioned them unless asked. I was to a degree infatuated by them.

In terms of attitude and work ethic in the studio, how did the Beatles differ from other acts you worked with? - Liam Carlton-Jones, via Facebook

Most artists at that time had a fantastic attitude to work, but their recording schedules were consistent with Musician Union rules of 2 or 3 hour sessions with possibly half an hour’s overtime. The Beatles, once firmly established, had no fixed finishing time so we often worked until the early hours of the morning.

When Paul introduced me to Nancy [Shevell], she remarked I must have many funny stories to tell. “Not really…they worked hard all the time,” I replied. “Do you know that from Sept 4th 1962 until their last session at Abbey Road on 4th Jan 1970, they wrote, recorded and released 212 songs? That equates to one every 13 and a half days for over seven years, and that time includes tours, holidays and everything else.” “Geraway!” said Paul. So yes, their work ethic was outstanding but by no means unique.

What was your greatest experience with The Beatles? - @IsayMcBell, via Twitter

The first time they came into Studio Two in 1968 after I had been promoted to Manager of Technical Operations, they obviously were made aware of this fact. I received a phone call in my office from their Road Manager, Mal Evans, saying the Beatles had a very serious complaint so would I come to Studio Two immediately please.

Feeling rather scared I went to the Control Room, where all four were stood behind the mixing console. Spokesman John Lennon, clutching a roll of EMI toilet paper, said “Mr Townsend, we have a very serious complaint: the toilet paper in this place is too hard and shiny and you can’t wipe your bum on it. Not only that, it has EMI Limited stamped on every sheet. If you do not do something about it we will notify the Chairman.”

At the time I did not realise it was possibly a wind up, but we changed all the paper from that day on, so they did us a big favour.

Were there any engineering processes that you had never done before, that you used for creative input on The Beatles? - @NateWhittaker, via Twitter

Yes. There are too many to list in detail, but many related to ingenious ways we utilized the brilliant Studer four track machine when we really needed many more tracks. These included ‘four to fours’, track bouncing, dropping in, locking two machines together in sync and frequent use of frequency control.

The Amp Room [a nickname for Abbey Road’s technical engineers], of which I was a member, have never received the recognition they deserve for their contribution to the Beatles recordings, as no session could ever have taken place without their presence.

You are reported as the one who found Automatic Double-Tracking technique during Revolver album recording. How did that come about? - Brenda Gracia, via Facebook

One night we had been double tracking Paul’s voice by sending a track down to the studio via cans [headphones] and him singing over his own voice. It was a time consuming process, and a waste of a valuable track on the tape machine.

Driving home in the early hours of the morning, I came up with an idea how this could be done by sending the sync output of a Studer J37 and delaying this by using a BTR2 with the capstan motor on frequency control, then adding it to the original signal from the replay output of the Studer.

I rushed back to work the following morning, tried my idea out and it worked. I demonstrated it to the Beatles the following evening and they utilized it frequently from then on. About six months later I was called up to the General Manager’s office, and told not to use it until it had been technically approved. The same evening the Beatles used it again!

Ken, you developed ADT for the Beatles. Were there any other doublers being used in studios at that time? - @ParsonWickertoe, via Twitter

To my knowledge, there was nothing available. Digital Delay Lines could have done a similar sort of job, but they were not of sufficient quality at that time, being only 12bit. They would not have been able to do the secondary use of ADT which was for phasing.

How did you set up the recording sessions? – Dave Gibbs, via Facebook

There was a basic set up for different types of recording, but each engineer had their own ideas of choice of microphones etc. Some recordings took ages to get ready, especially when we had separate set ups for mono and stereo.

Which records particularly inspired you as a kid, and did any of them influence your work as an engineer? - Myles Eastwood, via Facebook

I was a kid in World War II. The only records we heard then were by Vera Lynn!

If you could turn back the time, which recording session(s) you would like to go back to? ‏- @Brenda_Gracia, via Twitter

I loved location recordings. Beyond The Fringe at the Cambridge Arts Theatre and Adge Cutler and the Wurzels, live in Somerset would top my list.

Lots of people think that the fxs like ADT have been replaced with protools plugins, is that true or is real ADT still in use today? - ‏@MGORKI, via Twitter

Yes, the original ADT is no longer in use. Some artists have told me the modern devices don’t sound as good, but time moves on.

Did you find tape hiss a major problem (pre-Dolby) and what tape speeds were most commonly used? - @techygeezer, via Twitter

Tape hiss was never a major problem, as we lined up our tape machines to the optimum specification. Tape hiss became noticeable on second generation tapes. We used 15ips for pop and occasionally 30ips on classical.

We had a compansion noise reduction system designed by EMI Research well before Dolby, but it never really caught on or was deemed necessary.

What do you think of music recorded now? As back then everything had soul. - Patrick Tobin, via Facebook

I went to see Mark Knopfler at the Albert Hall last Friday. He and his musicians were absolutely fantastic, but some of the modern recordings leave me cold. I hate seeing artists performing ‘live’ on TV when they are obviously miming.

Studios have changed a hell of a lot over the years. What are some of the changes in regards to equipment that you've liked and perhaps not liked so much? - Ben Varcoe, via Facebook

I am not really qualified to comment anymore, but at Abbey Road their equipment utilizes a mixture of the most modern and some of the old valve microhones and modules. That philosophy gets my wholehearted approval.

What is your fondest memory of working at Abbey Road, or what aspect of working there really kept you going through all those years? - Kevin Lynn Brown, via Facebook

My fondest memory of Abbey Road is all the dedicated staff who worked for me, and the support I got even when making difficult decisions.