Lester Smith's Abbey Road Story #AbbeyRoad90

Lester takes us through his fascinating 52-year journey at Abbey Road Studios.

 

After finishing school in Worthing, I joined the G.P.O. (General Post Office) for an apprenticeship in telecommunications. As a teenager I was passionate about ‘pop’ music, so I bought an acoustic guitar with a pickup plus a second-hand ¼ inch four-track EMI tape machine so that I could record myself. I also built a small amplifier for the guitar.

One day in 1968 my mother told me that EMI was looking for a technical engineer to work in the Tape Record’s division at Hayes, Middlesex. I immediately applied for the job and got it. Here I was involved with looking after rows of tape machines copying the master tapes coming up from Abbey Road and being transferred to reels of ¼ inch tape for sale to the public.

 
After several years there, my boss Freddie Brooks told me that Len Page, a senior engineer at Abbey Road Studios required an assistant. I applied for the job and started work there in January 1970.

My room with Len Page was on the top floor and known as the ‘Laboratory’. The testing of new equipment and upgrading of current equipment was done there and the Chief Engineer, Mike Batchelor, also had an office nearby. My job as a ‘Calibration Engineer’ was to look after the six cutting rooms (known as mastering rooms today) also located on the top floor.

 
 
Disk cutting of 12” LP’s and 7” singles is a very precise affair and the ‘cutting lathes’ needed very careful alignment to get the very best quality from the recordings, after all the recording has to sound as good as the live performance! Approximately every 30 hours, new styli had to be fitted into the cutting head. The ‘swarf’, or material coming away from the lacquer, could be as long as a third of a mile and if it broke during the cutting process the operator would have to start all over again.
The only way to check frequency responses accurately was by cutting short bands of different frequencies between 30 and 16,000 Hertz and measuring their ‘light band width’ on a special machine. These were called ‘pictures’ because the light reflecting back from the grooves looked like a wine glass. We would never play them back with a pick-up because the softness of the lacquer would give a false result. Len Page was very meticulous, and reports of every operation were carefully recorded in notebooks. Fortunately, we got on very well together.
At that time, we had three ‘Recording Studios’ and 17 ‘Post Production’ rooms which consisted of editing, copying, cassette making, 78 rpm transfers, mixing and listening rooms. These rooms were ‘grey’ areas because there were no dedicated technical engineers to look after them, so a few years later the management decided to form the ‘Technical Services Department’. I was given the choice of looking after the tape recorders or the microphones. I chose microphones as they were a completely new experience for me.
 
My first job with the microphones was to learn how to test them. Fortunately there was some test equipment handy. EMI had designed a ‘sound proof box’ in which a microphone could be put and completely isolated from external sounds. This was mostly beneficial for the valve and FET condenser type microphones as they used high gain amplifiers. EMI had also designed the ‘Acoustic Noise Generator' (type RS145). This was a hand-held device producing ‘white noise’ at an adjustable sound level. When pointed at a set distance from the microphone now set up in the studio, the result of which could be adjusted by the engineer at the control room desk. This will ensure all the microphones are working at the same levels. There were only three ever made. One for our mobile recoding teams out on location; one for the Studios, and one as a spare.
 
 
Being very methodical and having so many microphones to look after (450 back then and 40 different types) I devised a LOG book to put the serial number of every microphone in it with space for the date and problem and cure. I also collected all the published information available from every manufacturer. Neumann microphones were perhaps our most popular back then and are pretty well as much today. The valves for most of the condenser mics, many of which are nearing 70 years, are still available at a price. When things break down I always keep the bits and they often come in handy. I also make special tools which reach the awkward spots that other people ignore or disregard - but it works.
As time went on, I was expected to take on more responsibilities. In 1975 the studios invested for the first time in a new recording desk known as the EMI/NEVE Console with 36 main and 24 monitor channels and I was put in charge of the maintenance and servicing of that; and in 1980 EMI had built one of the first Digital Recording Systems in the world and I learnt how to line that up for recording and cutting discs.
In time, more ‘digital’ devices came along, but our analogue equipment, in particular the microphones, with their valves and transistors are very popular and still in daily use. Over my years at Abbey Road Studios, I have had nine bosses and I am grateful that they have all appreciated my skills and qualities.
 
The joy of working at Abbey Road is that no two days are alike. Artists and celebrities from all over the world arrive to record here and I have got to meet quite a few. 30 years ago, I met Slava Rostropovich the famous cellist and mentioned that Stephanie and I were going to his home city of St Petersburg to visit the Hermitage museum. Straight away he said that he knew the director there and wrote a letter of introduction for me to take.
Another time Tony Bennett and his son and manager Danni came to record Christmas songs in Studio One. During the lunch break Danni asked me if I could show him around and later took my photograph with Tony in the garden. Also Paul McCartney comes by occasionally and likes to have a chat…
Artists have often asked to see our famous microphone collection and are thrilled when I show them our ‘iconic’ microphones such as the Neumann U47/U48s as used on all of the Beatle recordings and still in use every day. They are always impressed when I show them the Alan Blumlein HB1E, probably the first dynamic microphone ever made in 1931 (Alan is my hero by the way).
 
Alan Blumlein
HB1E
 
My biggest thrill was to help Peter Cobbin and Alexander Desplat with the music for the film ‘The Kings Speech’. Peter wanted to use the actual Royal Microphones that King George VI used, so we requested EMI Archives to send them to the Studios. There were actually five microphones and Peter asked me to try and get them working. After being silent for over 70 years this was a special opportunity to have a go.
 
There were two ‘Kings’ microphones, one for KG V which was an early carbon type made by Marconi in 1925 and one for KG VI, an early ‘moving coil’ type manufactured by EMI in 1937. To accompany these were two others specially made for Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mum. They were all very beautiful and covered in elaborate silver decoration; each came with a tripod chromium stand. Luckily I was able to get three of these working much to the delight of Peter and Alexander which can be heard on their own at the very beginning of the film. Afterwards, I made a portfolio of all the times these microphones were used on public occasions.
It is well known that the Studios have always been a friendly and happy environment to work in and I always look forward to every day I come to work!

 
 

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