The History of Film Recording at Abbey Road Studios | As Told By Abbey Road's Mirek Stiles | Part One

It’s no secret that a large percentage of projects that come through the doors of Abbey Road are attributed to the wonderful art of film scoring. Like a large majority of the blockbusting Abbey Road story, the tradition of recording music to picture at the illustrious studios is sprinkled with a dusting of fable, fate and foresight.
 
Sir Edward Elgar with the LSO at the opening ceremony in Studio One

Sir Edward Elgar with the LSO at the opening ceremony in Studio One

 

The Fable:

Studio One, arguably the centre piece of Abbey Road, was the location of the studios’ opening ceremony in November 1931 with Sir Edward Elgar and the London Symphony Orchestra. As the maestro picked up his baton to conduct Land of Hope and Glory he would’ve had no idea that 50 years later this historic room would bear witness to all-American action heroes, treasure hunting Nazis, futuristic robotic police, space vampires and fornicating lovers. The visual feasts on offer would have been enough to make the poor chap lose his place in the score.

Studio One is one of the largest purpose-built studios in the world, and certainly largest of the three main recording areas at Abbey Road. It was designed predominantly with classical music in mind and, for a large proportion of the room’s early life, it was a busy place hosting the greats like Sergei Prokofiev, Yehudi Menuhin and Pablo Casals. Non-classical popular artists like Fats Waller, Glenn Miller and Burt Bacharach also graced the cavernous room with their presence, but by the middle of the 1970s problems started to creek in, major problems…


By the mid ‘70s the classical scene, from a recording point of view, had started to dry up a little. Most of the repertoire had been recorded and released on everything from vinyl to 8 track cartridges; all recorded, edited and mastered on wonderful analogue tape machines. There wasn’t a huge amount of new classical music coming through the doors and the glorious digital age was yet to explode, in which all the repertoire would be re-recorded, but this time without hiss. Unfortunately, during this lull use of Studio One with its rather large footprint was depleting rather rapidly, to the point where the suits on the EMI board wanted to know why revenues were down and what the hell was going on? This created a huge amount of pressure for then studio manager Ken Townsend. Instead of the LSO or RPO creating beautiful lush symphonic sounds, the room was becoming accustom to games of 5-a-side football and members of staff driving their cars in to the studio floor for a quick mechanical tune up. As much as the exciting game of footie between Pink Floyd and the Technical Team must have been, it wasn’t paying the bills and this had become a serious problem, serious to the point that major and in some cases drastic plans were bubbling away in the background.
 
Former Studios Manager Ken Townsend

Former Studios Manager Ken Townsend

 
It became quite obviously clear that a room the size of Studio One, in one of the most prosperous and expensive parts of London being used for quick games of badminton during the staff lunch break was non-sustainable. Options were explored with the management high up in EMI and a rather drastic, but at the time understandable solution put to the table was to divide Studio One into smaller studios and rooms. At the time the trend for pop music recordings was to create a dry and upfront sound, and the studios that could cater for this fashion in London were hugely popular. Such spaces didn’t take up a huge amount of space and you could certainly fit at least two of those spaces in the area taken up by hugely reverberant Studio One and still have adequate space left over for a games room, jacuzzi and large underground car park. Okay the jacuzzi might be an exaggeration, but the car park was no joke, I have seen the original plans that were drawn up. Before everyone jumps out of their seat and waves their fists in the air screaming ‘this was outrageous’, it’s worth keeping in mind at the time this would have made perfect sense (except for a multi-million pound bill that is). If you imagine yourself in that position, Studio One was empty, the CD hadn’t happened, smaller pop studios were hugely popular, and no one could get a bloody parking space!

It’s safe to say, and I think the general conscious would agree, if this project had taken place it’s highly unlikely Abbey Road Studios would still exist to this day. It would have been a very different story. Just imagine that, for starters you wouldn’t be reading this fabulous blog.
 

The Fate:

So, what blocked this would-be disastrous development from occurring? I imagine Ken Townsend wasn’t exactly over the moon at the prospect of tearing down a historic and beautiful sounding room like Studio One. I am sure he would have been exploring all the options and leaving no stone unturned and, all jokes aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if it caused the studio legend sleepless nights. Luckily, by small fortune, around the same time as this moral dilemma was unfolding, other equally challenging developments were occurring in the world of music recording. This time, a few miles west of St. John’s Wood in a little place called Denham.
 
Denham Studios A.K.A London Film Productions

Denham Studios A.K.A London Film Productions

 
Opening in 1936, Denham Studios was a large UK film production facility responsible for creating classics such as Brief Encounter, Great Expectations and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, to name but a few. In 1966 a sound postproduction company called The Anvil Film Unit based in Beaconsfield, responsible for recorded post-synching dialog, Foley sound effects and film music relocated to Denham Film Studios after the lease was up on their building. This gave birth to a new sound and music department at the Denham Studios site and it became known the Anvil Film and Recording Group Limited. Legendary scoring engineer Eric Tomlinson was appointed chief engineer of the new cutting-edge facility. Oh, and when I say legendary that feels like a bit of an understatement. Eric’s IMDB list of credits reads like a tick list of some of the coolest films ever made and this guy pretty much defined how we still record film music to this day – just saying…

You can learn more about Eric here.
 
Eric Tomlinson at the mixing console

Eric Tomlinson at the mixing console

 
Some of the scores recorded during this incarnation of Anvil includes Alex North’s rejected music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Superman, The Omen, Star Wars and Alien – not a bad track record. By mid-1979, demolition work had started at the other end of the huge Denham Film Studios site. The last film to be produced there was in 1952 and by now the site was mostly being used as offices and warehouses. Eventually in 1980 the hugely successful Anvil Group was forced to relocate, as a developer purchased the site with the intention to demolish and redevelop it as a business park. What must have been seen as a disaster for Anvil at the time became a stroke of luck for Abbey Road Studios. Knowing what fate was on the horizon, Eric Tomlinson started to look around for a new home. By this time the Foley, Dialog and Sound Effects side of the business had split from the scoring department, which was essentially just Eric and assistant engineer Alan Snelling.

Desperate to find a venue, the Anvil team examined various churches and halls before Tomlinson suggested EMI Abbey Road. This must have been a far more attractive proposition to Ken, than tearing down a historically important studio. So over several months meetings took place between Andrew Mitchell (Head of EMI Elstree – yes EMI at this time had locations all over the place, the height of their powers), Richard Warren (Head of Anvil), Ken and Eric. It was agreed that a new company would be formed and based at Abbey Road, with the name Anvil Abbey Road Screen Sound Ltd. The directors of the new set up were Eric Tomlinson, Alan Snelling, George Manolescue (Anvil accountant) and Ken Townsend.
 
Eric Tomlinson and Maurice Jarre worked together on a number of films

Eric Tomlinson and Maurice Jarre worked together on a number of films

 
This deal gave Anvil a new home and crucially for Abbey Road a new lease of life for Studio One. It meant the only disruption to take place involved cutting a small hole high up in the wall of the studio for the 35mm film projector and installing a large pull-down screen at the other end of the room, both of which are still there to this day. Depending on who you ask (and what Google tells you) the very first film score committed to tape at Abbey Road would have been Maurice Jarre’s Lion of the Desert or Miklós Rózsa’s Eye of the Needle.

Looking through some old Anvil Abbey Road Screen Sound job sheets I pulled from the archives, it looks like the first project was Lion of the Desert – December 1980, but first-hand witness accounts recall this film being recorded at the old Anvil stage in Denham. So, it looks like Lion was started at Denham and completed at Abbey Road, perhaps overdubs or mix down sessions, who knows. Taking this into account, I would think it’s safe to assume the first complete film score project recorded at Abbey Road would have been Rózsa’s Eye of the Needle in January 1981. A significant session in the history of Abbey Road.
 
Alan Snelling at the piano in Studio One

Alan Snelling at the piano in Studio One

 

The Foresight:

The importance of this moment in the history of Abbey Road Studios cannot be underestimated. Had it not been for the pioneering actions of Ken Townsend, Eric Tomlinson and Alan Snelling, the birth of film scoring at Abbey Road would not have happened, Studio One would probably have been turned into a car park and the world’s most famous recording studio wouldn’t be in existence today. In many ways, Abbey Road and EMI took a huge risk in this new venture; they were treading in unknown territory and luckily it paid off. To think of Studio One today without film scoring would be like strawberries without cream or fish without chips, but before 1980 recording music to picture at Abbey Road was non-existent. It just goes to show that some things are meant to be…

Read the next exciting instalment of this series, where we explore the thrills and spills of the legendary, epic, violent, scary, erotic and sometimes crazy film scores recorded at Abbey Road during the 1980s. It would have been enough to make Sir Edward Elgar’s mustache hairs stand on end.
 
John Williams conducting the LSO in Studio One

John Williams conducting the LSO in Studio One