20 Years at Abbey Road with Alex Wharton

20 Years at Abbey Road with Alex Wharton

We sat down with Alex Wharton to mark his 20th anniversary working at Abbey Road Studios.

Learn about Alex's journey from studio runner to mastering engineer, working with the likes of Paul McCartney, Aurora, Bitty McLean, Yussef Dayes and Girl Scout, his love of vinyl and some of his most memorable moments from Abbey Road.

Find out how you can have your music mastered by Alex using our Online Mastering service.

How does it feel hitting this milestone?

"It feels amazing. It does make me feel really old, but it’s a great milestone! I get to sit around and listen to music all day, it’s a dream job."

What first got you into music?

"I’d have to say my sister. She was about five years older than me so really showed me the way. She would take me clubbing even when I was like 14 years old. I don't know how I got let in to be honest! That led me to get really into soul music and hip-hop, reggae, things like that. Really good times.

My dad was into his folk. He ran a folk club in St. Albans. My mum was a massive Beatles fan too, along with the whole generation."

Has your relationship to music changed?

"I went through a big indie patch with the long hair, curtains, shaved sides. Went through it all. The grungy stage, the hip-hop stage, the reggae stage.

I think my taste has become more and more eclectic through the years. For me, as long as it has soul, that’s all that matters. I’d say the only thing that’s changed is I’m more aware of the whole spectrum of music."

How did you end up in mastering? Was it pre-Abbey Road, or something you progressed into?

"I went to the School of Audio Engineering and then came to Abbey Road as a runner. I learned a lot from a lot of different people and kind of worked my way up. Well, I wouldn’t say up, just across!

I’m a bit of a vinyl junkie, so as a runner, and later a transfer engineer, I used to come up after work and learn how to cut records from some of the old boys."

Can you tell us about your first time at the studios?

"I remember my interview with Colette Barber, the former Studio Manager, and I remember coming in on my first day and it being a bit overwhelming. Everyone was so nice though and I think I fit in ok!

It was an amazing time being a runner. Hard work, but I learnt so much. The engineers were really good about sharing their knowledge."

Do you remember the first project you worked on?

"I remember being on The Lord of The Rings sessions and having a lot of late nights, even sleeping over sometimes. Seeing Peter Jackson on the screen in Studio One beamed in from New Zealand and just seeing a full orchestra do their thing was mind-blowing.

One of the best early moments for me was watching a band called The Bees. They did a song called I Love You and it’s absolutely beautiful. They used all the old equipment to do it in Studio Two. I remember having goosebumps because the sound was just incredible and timeless.

Then there was watching Stevie Wonder in Studio One do a two-hour set. That was something else."

Who were your mentors when you started?

"Steve Rooke was my mentor, and also Sean Magee, they taught me the way of the lathe.

Steve was a very skilled mastering engineer and just one of the nicest guys on the planet. He was like a dad figure to me really. I’ll always be grateful to him for showing me the ropes and passing on his knowledge.

I’ve been in the same room, Room 7, since then. I actually got the job as a mastering engineer when Nick Webb, who shared the room with Steve, retired after 40 years. Steve and I had about five years crossover before he left."

Can you tell us about Colin Johnson and the mark he left on the studios?

"Colin Johnson was part of the technical staff here and was a bit of a legend. Big Chelsea fan. Among other things, Colin invented the MosCow Central digital patch bay which allows us to monitor our signal path at any stage and makes our job a whole lot easier. The current technical staff look after it now and it still works great.

He’s retired now, living the good life somewhere up North!"

What are some of your all-time favourite pieces of gear?

"The TG12410 console has been here since I started. The one in this room is from 1972. It was originally used for cutting, but we still use the tone, the high-pass filters and the limiters all the time.

I love the Shadow Hills compressor and the Manley passive EQ. We’ve also got a new bit of kit, a look-ahead analogue limiter from Hum Audio which is beautiful. It has dynamic transients so can basically add transients back in after a song is limited.

A lot of the analogue gear we have here is great for getting colour and tone and depth before we take it back into the digital realm."

How did you end up working on Beatles albums and solo-Beatle releases?

"I started off running parts / sorting out the formats for some of the more senior mastering engineers here. In the process I became very close to engineer Allan Rouse. At the time of the Beatles remasters in 2009, he was leading the “special operations” so to speak.

I think they had trust in me to go the extra mile and liked what I did. Right place, right time! It’s just an absolute honour to work on these masterpieces."

What’s it like having Paul McCartney in the room? Any specific memories?

"Having Paul in the room is surreal. He’s obviously a genius and one of the most respected musicians of all time - but along with that he’s one of the loveliest blokes you could meet and very charismatic and he knows exactly what he wants.

When we did the remasters of his solo albums, he’d come along and listen to what I’d done and tell me what he thinks. It’s just a beautiful experience really. He’s got great people working for him as well, it’s like a well-oiled machine. What can I say? It’s Macca.

I remember once we were doing a playback in Studio Three and he gave me one of his famous bagel sandwiches with marmite and cheese."

How did you start working with Aurora? What’s her approach in the mastering room?

"Geir Luedy who is a Norwegian manager/producer with Made Records introduced me to Aurora.

She came over for the first album and sat here on the floor on a cushion. Just a beautiful soul. I think she’s got one of the most amazing voices I’ve ever heard really. It was an honour to work with her on it."

Can you tell us about working with Bitty McLean and what he means to you?

"Bitty McLean is a living legend. Back in the day I was obsessed with a track he did called Walk Away from Love.

I'm not sure why he picked me, but one day he turned up for a mastering session. We just clicked and he loves the analogue process.

He’s in the process of doing a soul album at the moment which is going to be incredible!"

What was your experience working on the new Girl Scout EP?

"Phenomenal. Absolutely love them. It took me back to my indie days. The bass reminds of Kim Deal and the vocals are just beautiful. There’s a track on there called Millionaire which I can’t stop playing.

I love that they do the slower songs and the upbeat ones. I think they are going to do amazing, it’s just great music."

Could you list a few of your favourite projects that you’ve worked on?

"Working with Kevin Shields on My Bloody Valentine was epic. It was just great to see someone so focused and the passion he had for music was incredible. It was blood, sweat and tears but it was an amazing experience.

It’s hard to choose, so many artists from all walks of life come through here and I learn something from all of them."

Do you have a favourite memory at Abbey Road?

"Paul McCartney phoning me when I was a runner and me not believing it was him.

He called on my direct phone and was using my first name, so I just didn’t believe it and put the phone down. Then the next minute he phoned back and assured me that it really is Paul and that he needed some help getting a metronome to RAK Studios where he was working.

I ended up meeting him at reception and he went on to show me around the whole of Abbey Road, telling me about what they did. He wanted to meet some of the old engineers, so we just walked in in their rooms to their surprise. That was probably one of the most amazing moments of my time here."

How would you define your approach to mastering?

"Just looking for any frequencies that pop out first of all. I always go to the vocals first to see how they sound and whether they're sibilant or might need anything.

Then I go to the bass because I love bass. I do a lot of subtraction EQ. It’s just a general feeling, I tend to go to the analogue first and then go to the digital for the details.

It’s just about getting a vibe."

How do you balance the technical with the more instinctual and emotional aspects of mastering?

"You’ve got to work with the artist and understand what they envision. We offer our advice, but it’s all about working closely with them to get what they want. You can really change the whole essence of a track so it’s important to be on the same level.

Overall, I think the feeling is most important and the technical aspects just come along with it. It’s the emotional response to the frequency that directs what we do technically."

Why do you think so may engineers/staff members stay at Abbey Road for their whole careers?

"I think it’s because Abbey Road is a beacon of positive energy. Why would you want to leave? You get to work with some of the greatest artists and it’s just a melting pot of creativity. In today’s world that’s what we need."

Sum up your time at Abbey Road in three words.

"I’d say surreal, connected and spiritual."

Find out how you can have your music mastered by Alex using our Online Mastering service.


Related News