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

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

3rd April 2021

A very warm welcome to Part Three of The History of Film Scoring at Abbey Road Studios. It’s been a little while since I last scripted some words depicting the wondrous endeavour of marrying music to picture, and for that I apologise profusely. I’m sure the long wait was nail biting, like the opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but rest assured we can now crack on!

In my last instalment I focused of the turbulent, creative and important first decade with the legendary team from Anvil Abbey Road Screen Sound and how relationships had to be massaged (sometimes very deeply) between films clients and the old guard of EMI Classics, who regarded Studio One as their home. Studio manager Colette Barber battled as peacemaker between the two camps, and obviously did a marvellous job as the ‘90s steamrolled ahead in what equated to be an exciting and busy period for the studios – let’s explore.
It’s worth noting film scoring in the leafy North London district of St. Johns Wood during the ‘90s was a very fluid decade from a technical point of view. Most projects had made the inevitable transition from mighty 35mm projection to the humble picture playback system of video cassettes and TV screens. Although it wasn’t anywhere near as sexy as scoring an orchestra to a huge cinematic backdrop, the video and small screen approach was a lot quicker and, with most things in life, convenience always prospers. As the demands on sessions for all involved became more intense, anything that bought you more time was very much appreciated. There were some exceptions of course, especially with James Horner who always liked to project to the big screen. Chaplin and Star Wars Episode One also witnessed the widescreen treatment.

There was also a trend during this period for the transition from analogue means of recording to the clinical but flexible world of digital - although still all tape-based, as recording onto hard drive (when there is a very expensive 100 piece orchestra waiting in the room) was notoriously unpredictable even well into the early ‘00s. Plus the newer, shinier and faster synchronisation methods became more reliable and, although still rudimentary by today’s standards, a very slick operation had evolved at the studios, which can be largely accredited to technical engineer Dave Forty.

As mentioned in my previous blog, in 1984 Studio One was furnished with an SSL G Series recording console and, a decade on, it was really starting to show its age. For starters, the sound of the SSL was less favoured by the film scoring and classical community (although loved by rock and pop engineers). But more importantly the SSL was really, only ever designed to provide a mono surround channel, as defined in the Dolby Stereo spec. By the early ‘90s discrete stereo surround channels were pretty much standard, via the 5.1 format that became mass adopted in theatres since the 1992 release of Batman Returns. Thus, the decision was made in 1993 to install a Neve Legend console, complete with an 8-channel mix buss. This enabled for both a 5.1 surround mix and stereo fold down to be achieved simultaneously.
The 72 channel Neve Legend console was installed in Studio One in 1993

The 72 channel Neve Legend console was installed in Studio One in 1993

Before we propel ourselves into a list of films recorded and mixed in the chair shaking 5.1 format, it would be rude not to mention a couple of little gems recorded via the humble SSL.

The Fisher King, 1991

The first of two films in this blog to star the magnificent Robin Williams. The Fisher King is an imaginative comedy drama directed by Terry Gilliam and his first film not to feature any other members of the Monty Python crew. Gilliam had three rules when it came to film making: 1. Always use your own script 2. Never work for a major studio 3. Never work in USA. He broke all three rules to make this picture.

Terry Gilliam returned to Abbey Road after the rather exceptional Brazil was scored in Studio One by Michael Kamen in 1885. For The Fisher King, Gilliam collaborated with British composer George Fenton for scoring duties.

The sessions were engineered by the legendary Keith Grant, who had over 50 film credits to his name after starting his carrier in the 1960s working with acts like The Beatles, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Who, the list goes on. Yes a legend indeed.
George Fenton, Richard Attenborough and Keith Grant during the scoring session in Studio One for In Love and War 1996

George Fenton, Richard Attenborough and Keith Grant during the scoring session in Studio One for In Love and War 1996

The film was both a critical and commercial success; an emotionally moving mixture of fantasy, comedy and drama with an inspiring performance by Williams. One critic sadly noted in a re-appraisal after Williams’ death "no Williams film can hit harder — or be so fully consoling in such heart-breaking circumstances — than The Fisher King, where his character gradually simmers to a boil of bristling insecurities, terror and agonizing internalised pain".

Chaplin, 1992

Chaplin is a biographical comedy drama about the life of Charlie Chaplin, directed by Richard Attenborough with Robert Downey Jr starring in the principal roll.

John Barry provided the musical score performed by the English Chamber Orchestra. The sessions in Studio One were engineered by Shawn Murphy and assisted by Simon Rhodes (who also engineered the song Smile from the pick-up sessions).
John Barry and Adam Faith, Studio Two circa 1960

John Barry and Adam Faith, Studio Two circa 1960

Barry was no stranger to Abbey Road and started his career as an EMI orchestral arranger from 1959 to 1962. During this period, he frequently worked at Abbey Road with pop artists like Adam Faith. After Faith was cast in the film Beat Girl, Barry was asked to compose the film’s soundtrack. This was to be Barry’s first score, and he went on to provide music for Faith’s next films Never Let Go and Mix Me a Person. The song Made You from the film Beat Girl was a minor hit, despite being banned by the BBC for its suggestive lyrics – outrageous stuff.
John Barry’s first film score for Beat Girl 1960

John Barry’s first film score for Beat Girl 1960

Of course, Barry went on to become one of best-known films composers in the world, having scored 12 James Bond films, alongside other hits like Out of Africa and Midnight Cowboy. On an interesting side note Barry provided the score for the notorious 1978 Italian Star Wars rip-off Star Crash. Apparently, the film makers thought their genius space opera would create a James Bond style franchise and hence they needed the James Bond composer. Originally panned by anyone who watched it (and with regards to Barry, filed under the “what was he thinking” category), Star Crash has since gone to acquire a huge cult following – so Barry had the last laugh.

Back to the far more sophisticated cinematic experience of Chaplin, and the truly beautiful score by Barry contains some of the composer’s most haunting music from his career. It’s an amazing example of the classic lush style that became Barry’s signature sound and fans consider this score to be one of his finest.

Philadelphia, 1993

The importance of Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, cannot be underestimated. Directed by Jonathan Demme, Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to tackle the subject of HIV, homophobia, and homosexuality. The director’s intention was for those unfamiliar with AIDS to see this film and try to reduce some of the stigma associated with the disease.

In the US, Philadelphia originally opened in just four theatres, but by the time Tom Hanks had won Best Actor for his ground-breaking performance at the Oscars, the film had spread to nearly 900 theatres across the States, eventually becoming the 12th highest grossing film that year.

Having previously scored the David Cronenberg film M. Butterfly at Abbey Road Studios, Howard Shore returned to score Philadelphia in Studio One. As with M. Butterfly, the score was engineered by Abbey Road Chief Recording Engineer John Kurlander. Having joined Abbey Road at the age of 16, starting out as a tape operator for The Beatles, Kurlander left London for Hollywood to start a successful freelance career in 1995, with Peter Cobbin taking over the reins as Chief Engineer. Both Shore and Kurlander would return to Abbey Road in early 2000s to start work on the epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which we will cover in some detail next time.

Interview with the Vampire, 1994

Based on the hugely successful 1976 novel by Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire was directed by Neil Jordan and starred the guaranteed seat-selling power duo of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

The film was produced by the Geffen Film Company with a budget of $70 million, which was unprecedented for a vampire movie at the time. Jordan was said to be drawn to the project because it isn’t often you get to make a complicated, dark and dangerous movie with a budget of that size. The director also managed to negotiate final cut for the picture, another rarity for most film makers.

Neil Jordan originally hired composer George Fenton to score Interview with the Vampire, having worked together on three films previously. Upon seeing an early cut of the film, producer David Geffen thought the resulting score was too slow and dark for the movie and it was eventually rejected. Unfortunately, as documented in my previous blog, this is something that can happen to many great composers in their career from time to time and is in no way a criticism of their art. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way they were initially imaged.

With time of the essence Jordan turned to composer Elliot Goldenthal to write and record the music within a three-week deadline. How composers can pick up a project, write, record and mix the score so close to theatrical release is beyond me and just confirms the exceptional talent and high pressures they often find themselves. Goldenthal went for a faster pace of music, mixed with more textual layers with instructions from the director to focus more on the seductive element of the film.

The result is a spectacular score with sweeping themes and at times almost operatic in scale. Some consider this to be one of Goldenthal’s carrier highlights and truly cemented the composer’s experimental, distinctive, and sometimes unconventional style to mainstream attention. The film resulted in Goldenthal’s first Oscar nomination and planted the seed for several collaborations with Jordan. This must have been a huge relief to Goldenthal, who jokingly admitted he was told by Geffen they were taking a huge risk hiring him and he’d better not fuck it up!

Little Women, 1994

At the time this was the fifth film adaptation of the classic two-part novel by Louisa May Alcott. Directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale, the picture was praised critically for offering an intelligent and sharp adaptation of the literally classic. The film almost never made it off the ground and took 12 years to find a studio willing to finance the picture. According to the screenplay writer and producer, Hollywood just wasn’t interested in a “a movie with a lot of women...” and feared it would have zero appeal to male audiences and hence categorised as a risky project. Well, that was all rather ridiculous as the movie earned $50m on an $18m budget and received three nominations at the 1995 Academy Awards including Best Score, although rather unusually overshadowed by the same composer’s own score for The Shawshank Redemption.

In 1994 American composer Thomas Newman scored no less than five pictures, which sounds rather exhausting, including The Shawshank Redemption and Little Women. The music, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, described as one of Newman’s most accessible orchestral offerings and the perfect backdrop to the film’s crisp winter seasonal setting. A truly beautiful marriage of musical and visual artwork, engineered by Shawn Murphy and assisted by Jonathan Allen, Little Women can be credited as the year that projected Newman to the mainstream as one of the most in-demand composers in Hollywood.

Braveheart, 1995

Upon its release in 1995, Braveheart was accused of a number of historical inaccuracies, but that is nothing new in Hollywood when it comes historical dramas, often prioritising cinematic licence over absolute accuracy in the name creating a more satisfying experience for the audience. Putting this well documented fact to one side, it didn’t stop Braveheart from becoming a massive global hit and Scotland witnessing a multimillion-pound boost to its tourism industry.

The film was directed, co-produced and starred Mel Gibson at the height of his Hollywood fame. After a successful partnership with Gibson’s directional debut The Man Without a Face, composer James Horner returned for the second of three collaboration projects with the ambitious director.

The score was performed in Studio One by the London Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by a boys’ choir and recorded by Shawn Murphy with assistance from Jonathan Allen. Frank Zappa keyboardist Ian Underwood contributed synthesisers and programming for a number of James Horner films including Braveheart. During this period the control room of Studio One was still relatively small compared to the footprint of today, and Underwood’s synth rigs swallowed most of the room’s real estate. By the time the usual entourage that accompanies most film sessions joined the proceedings there was barely enough space to breathe. The session momentarily fell apart when Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr decided to visit the control room, as they were working on The Beatles Anthology series upstairs. Apparently, Ringo announced to the control room he thought he was going to meet Mel Brooks.
A very busy Studio One control room during the scoring of Braveheart

A very busy Studio One control room during the scoring of Braveheart

The late great James Horner said he regarded Braveheart as his personal favourite score. The music brilliantly captures the historical feel and emotions as the film sweeps between romantic passages and epic battle sequences. Both director and composer originally discussed a medieval-style score, but felt this would be very difficult for the audience to digest. So, Horner set out to artistically bring a 12th Century feel and make it accessible to 20th Century audience, with stunning results.
Director Mel Gibson during a playback in Control Room One

Director Mel Gibson during a playback in Control Room One

The musical output from the sessions in Studio One was massive, to the point that two years later an additional album was justified entitled More Music from Braveheart co-produced by Abbey Road engineer Simon Rhodes.

Upon its release, Braveheart was praised by critics for its epic direction, magnificent production values, ambitious battle sequences, outstanding performances and of course the musical score. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and deservedly took home five Oscars, including Best Picture.

Dark City, 1998

Dark City has been credited for being one of the most criminally underrated sci-fi movies of all time; some critics at the time even claimed it was the best film of 1998. The opaque visionary world of Dark City directed and written by Alex Proyas has even been described retrospectively as the best film you’ve never seen. Every frame of film seems to exude colossal amounts of atmosphere and certainly stirs the imagination, similar in effect to that of Terry Gilliam’s equally dark sci-fi venture Brazil.

Proportionately underrated is the distinctively ominous and atmospheric score from Trevor Jones, considered one of his best by many fans. Engineered by Simon Rhodes, the music’s memorable themes and motifs have a compelling mixture of traditional orchestral movements augmented with edgy electronic layers, creating a perfect back drop to the neo-noir images on screen.

For the film’s theatrical release, the studio was concerned the audience would be confused with the nightmarish and mysterious visions of urban repression and demanded a voice over to explain some of the narrative. Interestingly, the exact same thing happened with an equally revered sci-fi classic Blade Runner and subsequently the voice overs for both films were removed for their respective director cuts. Whilst we are on the subject of making comparisons, Dark City has also been compared somewhat in plot, atmosphere and cinematography to The Matrix, which was released a year later. Some of the sets for Dark City were even sold to the Matrix production crew at the end of shooting.

What Dreams May Come, 1998

Robin Williams stars in the emotive and beautiful fantasy world of What Dreams May Come, based on the heart-breaking novel by Richard Matheson and directed by the visionary Vincent Ward. The film’s score, as can sometimes happen with any film, had a troubled history. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone originally wrote the music to this sombre story of faith, love, and loss. Unfortunately, due to extensive editorial changes made during post-production, Morricone’s score was eventually rejected after a less than favourable test screening. When test screenings don’t go to plan, it’s common for the score being the first element up for re-examination. A film’s score can completely change the feel and tone of an entire picture, (which is an accolade to the power of music), but can sometimes lead to composers, even the great ones, having their work replaced. It was suggested Morricone’s score was too liturgical, dark and sombre, which to be fair matches the nature of the story itself, but perhaps it was considered too much in the picture’s final context. Morricone was quoted that he didn’t mind the criticism but didn’t understand why he wasn’t approached to correct the situation. As with many projects across all spectrums in life, sometimes a clean slate is the best approach.

The score that made the final cut was composed by Michael Kamen, performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra, and recorded by Steven McLaughlin (and assisted by yours truly) in Studio Two. Since Abbey Road started recording film scores in the ‘80s, the famous ‘Beatles Studio’ has seen its fair share of Hollywood action, when a smaller ensemble or acoustic environment is required, for which What Dreams May Come was perfect.

Kamen had just three weeks to write, record and mix the entire score, does that sound familiar? Obviously, this was a mammoth undertaking and with time of the essence Kamen used the 1971 song Beside You from his band New York Rock and Roll Ensemble as the inspiration for the film’s main theme. This is a beautiful example of Kamen’s later output and mixes acoustic guitars, solo obo (played by Kamen) with lush orchestral elements to dramatic effect. What Dreams May Come music supervisor, Dawn Soler, noted in an interview that the (at the time) unreleased Guns N’ Roses song This I Love was proposed for the film, but for some reason Vincent Ward decided not to use it.

Eyes Wide Shut, 1999

Abbey Road Studios witnessed the recording for what became the great Stanley Kubrick’s final film – Eyes Wide Shut. The genius director died just six days after showing Warner Bros executives his final cut.

The erotic psychological drama based on the 1926 novella Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzier starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise was riddled with controversy upon its release. Rumours were circulating that Kubrick died before he finished editing and the movie released was a studio cut, scenes were digitally censored for the theatrical release, the outrageously long 15 month shooting period that eventually became recognised in the Guinness Book of World Records and the gruelling, but to be expected, filming conditions under which Kubrick was notorious.

The director’s quest for perfectionism was legendary. For example, in one scene Kubrick insisted Tom Cruise completed 95 takes of him walking through a door. In another example, as the film was set in New York’s Greenwich Village, but due to Kubrick’s fear of flying, the set designers were sent to New York to measure the exact width of streets and distances between newspaper vending machines so to perfectly reconstruct the exterior scenes at Pinewood Studios.

Composer Jocelyn Pook was hired after the film’s choreographer rehearsed the notorious orgy scene using one of Pook’s compositions Backward Priests from her 1997 album Deluge. Kubrick obviously liked what he heard and phoned the composer asking to hear more of her music. Pook immediately created a cassette compiling some of her work and a car was sent to pick it up. The next day the composer was invited to meet the director at Pinewood Studios and ended up scoring 24 minutes of additional music comprising mostly of string arrangements, including viola played by Pook herself.
Composer Jocelyn Pook at the console in Studio One with engineer Jonathan Allen in the background

Composer Jocelyn Pook at the console in Studio One with engineer Jonathan Allen in the background

The consequential music, recorded by Jonathan Allen, creates a dreamlike atmosphere of dread and menace which perfectly complements Kubrick’s beautiful images and sense of paranoia on screen. Pook, at the time was still very early on in her career and being asked to debut a film score by one of the most revered directors of all time, and starring Hollywood’s biggest A-list couple, must have been a little daunting, but the end results are nothing short of spectacular.

Sleepy Hollow, 1999

Sleepy Hollow is a tremendously atmospheric Tim Burton Gothic horror film based on Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Long-time collaborator Danny Elfman composed the wonderfully eerie and sometimes incredibly tense musical score for Burton’s dreamlike images and narrative of darkness and wonder.

Starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci the movie was praised for its performances, direction, sense of dark humour and of course the dramatic and evocative score.

The recordings for Sleepy Hollow were split between Air Studios and The Colosseum in Watford engineered by Shawn Murphy, with additional pickups recorded by Jonathan Allen in Studio One. Sessions at The Colosseum were facilitated by the Abbey Road Mobile recording team.
Since Abbey Road opened in 1931, there has always been an element of mobile recording facilities to cater for projects taking place in large cathedrals, town halls and churches. These venues provided greater space, a certain acoustic or even just a convenient location for the artists or a particular orchestra. It was quite common, if the big studios in London were fully booked, for a composer wishing to work with London based musicians to hire the Abbey Road mobile crew to ensure the score could be completed on time with first call musicians.
The His Master's Voice (HMV) mobile recording unit outside Abbey Road Studios, circa

The His Master's Voice (HMV) mobile recording unit outside Abbey Road Studios, circa

During the classical heyday of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Abbey Road mobile engineers Graham Kirby and Richard Hale were in huge demand in the UK and abroad, often travelling to the States or the deepest depths of Eastern Europe during the Cold War era. I’m sure an entire blog, book or film could be dedicated to the adventures of these legendary characters. Naturally, as Abbey Road started doing more films in the late ‘80s, the mobile team found themselves catering for a new clientele during the ‘90s and ‘00s and were often on the road recording music to picture.
Graham Kirby and Richard Hale circa 1973 sat in front of the VW van often used on smaller mobile jobs

Graham Kirby and Richard Hale circa 1973 sat in front of the VW van often used on smaller mobile jobs

The Colosseum is a huge concert hall located in the Grade II listed Watford Town Hall that opened in 1940. It’s been the location for countless recordings due to its large footprint and agreeable acoustics – the only problem being the Watford local disco was held on Friday nights, so the floor had to cleared in the afternoon and re-rigged Saturday mornings. Those were the days.
Inside the Watford Colosseum

Inside the Watford Colosseum


Star Wars Ep1, 1999

Star Wars fandom went into maximum overdrive when George Lucas announced he was coming out of his 22-year directorial hiatus to reboot the beloved franchise. Sixteen years after the recording of the previous Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, composer and conductor John Williams returned to Studio One with the London Symphony Orchestra and The London Voices.

There was a genuine buzz around the Studios during this period and security was tight resulting in a closed session, meaning only people directly involved in the project were allowed access into Studio One. The score was engineered by Shawn Murphy with assistance provided by Jonathan Allen and Andrew Dudman. Technical support was provided by Dave Forty who had the pleasure of ensuring 3 x multitrack tape machines, digital mix down devices, synth rigs, conductor camera, video projection, click and steamers all ran smoothly and stayed in sync. Out on the studio floor, the room was positivity buzzing with some cues requiring both full orchestra and choir, around 200 bodies could be in the room at any one time – a mammoth session.
The music team behind Star Wars Episode One standing at the back of Studio One under the projection screen

The music team behind Star Wars Episode One standing at the back of Studio One under the projection screen

Lucas and Williams decided early in the pre-production process that the score for the two subsequent films in the prequel trilogy would rely heavily on these recording sessions. A huge amount of music was recorded during the week-long sessions, and no release to date has featured all the notes performed by the LSO during this frantically busy undertaking; although some unreleased cues have made their way onto various LucasArts video games.
Composer John Williams and engineer Shawn Murphy with various members of the LSO in the Control Room One

Composer John Williams and engineer Shawn Murphy with various members of the LSO in the Control Room One

Undoubtedly one of the standout cues from Phantom Menace was Duel of the Fates, that pretty much defined the sound of the prequel trilogy. The music features both the LSO and the London Voices choir in all their stunning glory. The choral lyrics for the epic composition are based on an ancient Welsh poem Battle of the Trees and sung in Sanskrit, with the syllables re-arranged by Williams. I think it’s fair to say this powerful piece of music gave Star Wars fans the goose bumps.
George Lucas, John Williams and the London Symphony orchestra in Studio

George Lucas, John Williams and the London Symphony orchestra in Studio

Well, there we have it, another fine decade of film scoring in the world’s most famous recording studio. It would be criminal if I didn’t highlight a few other ‘90s gems recorded in Studio One, namely: George Fenton’s The Madness of King George, Eliot Goldenthal’s Titus, James Horner’s Apollo 13, Trevor Jones’ Notting Hill, Gabriel Yared’s The Talented Mr Ripley and sadly one of Maurice Jarre’s final film scores I Dreamed of Africa.

As I set out researching and writing these blogs, I sometimes casually think I know pretty much all there is to know about Abbey Road, but as proven to myself on many occasions, this is never really the case. Abbey Road Studios is always full of nice surprises.

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