The latest in our behind-the-scenes tour sees us step inside Room 13, home to Abbey Road engineers Simon Gibson and Andy Walter.
Simon and Andy have worked on music by everyone from Howard Shore and John Williams through to artists such as David Bowie, Maria Callas, Depeche Mode, Radiohead, Sigur Rós and The Beatles. They are also both a part of our online mastering team and are available to master your music to get it sounding as good as it possibly can.
Simon and Andy take us through some of the equipment they use to master tracks from the latest digital tech to analogue gear that has been a part of the Abbey Road mastering process for decades…
1. Pyramix Masscore DAW
“It’s a really good mastering package, I use it all the time. It does everything you need it to do in terms of stereo mastering, but it also does multi-track and surround.
We adopted this software in here for a couple of reasons:
A. We needed to be able to do 192k work for archiving purposes and the SADIE software used in the other mastering rooms didn’t allow for that. And B. It allows you to create Super Audio CD (SACD) masters which is sort of a legacy format, but still a very useful thing.
This room was set up as a surround mastering room, mainly sound to picture for DVD and broadcast. That meant that it wasn’t set up for analogue. Everything was aimed to keep the digital chain in order to keep things in sync to picture. That’s why we almost exclusively use plugins in here.”
2. Customised EMT 927st Turntable
“This was built by technical engineers from the EMI Research Department in the 1950s. They really knew what they were doing, there’s some real magic in there.
Originally there were about three or four of them in this building, but they were sold off to other EMI Studios and this is the last one. They were built to play not just 78s and not just vinyl records, but any size. Even weird, oversized ones you can only just fit on the plate.
There are two arms on there so you can play a record backwards. I transferred some acetates for Jimmy Page, for instance, which were quite worn. The groove had been damaged in one direction and the other direction had a lot less distortion because the stylus is actually hitting the other side. You’re still getting the same imprints up and down.”
“Speeds: 33, 45, 78. We’ve got a bunch of different heads and styli. Output amp which has a few different pre-sets on it with different filters. So, there’s a flat one for a vinyl LP which we tend to use. Then if you’re transferring 78s there’s a few different settings on there for that. Master output level: Mono or stereo. Then there’s a frequency control which basically is a varispeed.
For 78s in particular, because it’s analogue recording and playback, you have no idea what speed they actually recorded it at. It was a mechanical process back in the day so there were wide fluctuations. Instrumentalists and orchestras back in the early 20th century, particularly on the European continent, played all sorts of different pitches as well. And mains electricity was different frequencies in different countries. So, there’s a real hornet’s nest of potential problems!
The way you’d approach any transfer is to first get it as clean looking as you possibly can. Then choose your stylus depending on whether it’s a vinyl LP or a 78. With the 78 you’d likely have to play around with a few different sizes of styli, trying to get the least amount of surface noise. Then we plug it into our hi-res A/D – D/A converter which is from Merging Technologies called Horus and we take the digital feed out of that.”
3. CEDAR Cambridge v13
“We’ve got a different computer with a program on it from audio restoration experts CEDAR based in Cambridge. They were the first in the world to develop digital tools to clean up disc noise (surface noise, tape hiss, etc.) It’s a really powerful tool. I use it particularly for disc transfer work.
Basically, the way I use it is I will play audio out of Pyramix through the CEDAR and then capture it back into Pyramix.
The Retouch plugin within Pyramix allows you to select a small bit of audio, pull it up in a spectrogram window and deal with the click, hiss or sound you want to remove. It’s a non-destructive thing, it just looks left and right at the clean audio and replaces the selected area.
We used it loads on all of The Beatles’ remasters 12 or so years ago. On vinyl you’d never hear those things, but when it was done for CD we made the decision, “well actually, those sounds were introduced by the technology, it wasn’t heard in the studio, it’s not part of the song, so take it out.”"
“CEDAR stands for Computer Enhanced Digital Audio Restoration. Originally a research project for Cambridge University, they developed this system that could be used to take out clicks and crackles on records and because we were doing a lot of record transfers at the time, we were interested in that. So, Abbey Road bought the system and lo and behold I was the engineer that sat down with it and started using it in the first few years. No one else at that time had this technology and it was incredible.
The way it would work is I would transfer lots of records during the day and load them into the computer. You would put in some fairly arbitrary numbers and things, and there was a button that said “cook” and you press it and leave it overnight to process. It was quite labour-intensive and took a long time, but you know, the company started getting better and better with endless updates all the time. I was putting a lot of input into it and saying, you know, “you need to change this and do that, we need to have faders etc.”
Now with v13 you can run a transfer straight through and with only about a sixteenth of a second delay, it removes clicks, vinyl crackle and any underlying noise without damaging the music. I was doing it yesterday with an INXS interview that was on vinyl – you wouldn’t know it came from vinyl now! It’s like restoring an old oil painting where you take all the dust and grime off and you’re left with all these colours you never knew were there.
It’s not an on/off thing though, you can be very damaging. It can totally ruin recordings if you over-process it. If I took out all the noise from a record from 1929, it would sound muted and dull because recording technology at that time was very limited in its frequency response in the top end. As the recording gets later and you get into LP recordings, there’s more frequencies captured so you can have more success taking more noise out.
I also said, “We need to be able to see each section of the audio on the screen and be able to open them up and process them individually.” What came out of that was the CEDAR Retouch plugin which is just fantastic. I use it all day every day for normal mastering jobs.
When I did the film score for the first two Harry Potter films, we had a Timpani note that should’ve played and I used Retouch to add it in from the next bar. It’s like Photoshop for music.”
4. Universal Audio K-Stereo Plugin
“This is an ambience enhancer developed by the American engineer Bob Katz. I literally use it on everything whether it’s old, new, pop, classical, etc. It analyses the ambience in a recording and then it will just help to open out a narrow mix. In crude terms it’s like a stereo spreader, but it’s much more subtle than that. Really great on vocals as well.”
5. TG 12410 Mastering Units
“All the EMI plugins we use are really terrific and clear. When you run it through the real thing, you’re actually introducing a lot of noise and a lot of other elements to it. You might want that, and you might not.
We would more likely use this after making something sound good with digital plugins, as a final bit of warmth on a full album, for example. On one film score we actually ran it through flat, and you could just hear the difference with that bit of analogue space and air.”
6. 5.1 B&W N802 speakers with DB1 subwoofers
“As a mastering engineer you get used to the sound of your room and a lot of that is down to the speakers.
I love the B&Ws because they’re really detailed. They’re all full range so you just get all the bass that you need. And the clarity they offer is just what you need for mastering. The Chord amplifiers which we’ve used for many years work really well with these speakers.
Ours are set up for 5.1 surround with the chair positioned right in the sweet spot.”
“What I like about them is, here’s another buzzword, but they’re very transparent. They don’t over-flatter the sound. That becomes even more important today with surround and Atmos because getting the things like the levels of the sub right and when you’re spreading it across loads of speakers – you don’t want them developing the sound with any artificial curves.
I always monitor everything quite quietly because it’s easier to tell the difference things like an EQ are making. I learned that from the engineers here 20 or 30 years ago.”
Pass your songs through the incredible gear and experienced ears in Room 13 by using our Online Mastering service.