The History of Recorded Music has its roots firmly planted at No. 3 Abbey Road

The History of Recorded Music has its roots firmly planted at No. 3 Abbey Road

Abbey Road's Mirek Stiles discusses how an elegant sixteen-room, three-story town house built in 1830 changed the course of music history forever, the ripples of which are still unquestionably strong, inspiring and infectious.
Most historians agree that music has been in existence for at least 50,000 years. At first this most likely took shape from using the human mouth or simple bone objects to mimic everyday sounds heard by prehistoric cultures, but 50,000 years of music nonetheless. That is a very long time, and considering the first ever device capable of making a sound recording was the Phonautograph, patented in 1857, and The Gramophone Company wasn’t founded until 1898, the record industry as we know it is still relatively young in the grand scheme of things. A huge amount of innovation and development, the history of recorded music if you like, has happened right here in St Johns Wood, at No.3 Abbey Road.
Bearing in mind the first electricity act was not passed in this country till 1926, the early days of the music recording industry were still very much mechanical. A large wooden or metal acoustic horn would be placed in front of the artist and musicians. The only way to balance the various sounds of the recording would be to move instruments closer or further away from the horn. The vibrations from the horn would be sent down to a counter-weighted driven cutting lathe and pressings would be played back at home via hand wound gramophones.

The Opening of EMI Studios

It took nearly two years of major construction work to convert the Georgian townhouse at 3 Abbey Road into the world’s first purpose-built recording studio, and when the dust finally settled it was time to celebrate. Leading British classical composer Sir Edward Elgar was invited to mark the opening of EMI Studios on 12 November 1931 with a recording. He chose to conduct his famous composition Land of Hope and Glory and told the London Symphony Orchestra to "play this tune as though you've never heard it before".
In 1931 The Gramophone Company merged with the Columbia Graphophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries Ltd or EMI as it became commonly known. The music recording industry was showing great promise as a business model, so in the same year, EMI decided to open the world’s first dedicated music recording facility, Abbey Road Studios.

Before Abbey Road, the Gramophone Company were managing recordings at their factory headquarters in Hayes and any other locations they could obtain, including concert halls, town halls or even hotel rooms. Many composers of the time treated the recording of their compositions with a huge amount of suspicion. There was a genuine fear that once the public could buy recordings of their works, they would no longer need to attend their concerts.

Huge praise must be given to composers such as Sir Edward Elgar and Tenor Singer Edward Lloyd, not only for their artistic contribution to music, but also the fact these “maverick” artists believed in, and could see the future for the recording industry, brushing aside all fears and embracing the technology. An analogy that’s still very strong in today’s culture.

Alan Blumlein

Up until Abbey Road Studios opened its doors in November 1931, the Gramophone Company was using the American Westrex recording system and would have to pay a royalty to Westrex for every record sold. This obviously wasn’t an ideal set up, so EMI genius technician and inventor Alan Blumlein was hired to reinvent the wheel – microphones, mixers and cutting lathes had to be backward engineered and improved upon from the ground up. This ensured when EMI opened its new facility, the company was fully independent and could provide its artists with the latest cutting-edge equipment – Abbey Road was state of the art.
The discovery of magnetic tape recording was a massive game changing advance for the UK recording industry. During WW2 it was a mystery as to why German propaganda sounded so good. In the final stages of the war in Europe, the Allied capture of a number of German recorders from Radio Luxembourg aroused great interest. EMI used the key technological features from these machines to develop their first tape recorder, the BTR 1, in 1947. Not only did this advance the fidelity of recording quality from the rather primitive wax recording method used by Abbey Road up until this point, but it also changed the psychology of recording forever. Wax not only sounded poor, but also had very limited options when it came to recording: you could only start and stop the cutting lathe. If a musician made a mistake during the recording, the take would be stopped and re-started until the perfect performance was captured.

The key significance of tape was the ability to cut and paste sections from various takes to create one seamless performance via tape editing. One could argue this was the beginning of technology being used to make the recording of music easier for all involved, augmenting the creative process. Not so dissimilar to the use of computers, auto tune and Artificial Intelligence in the years to follow.

Introduction of Stereo

By the mid-1950s stereo was slowly being introduced the general public. It was actually patented in 1931 by the aforementioned Alan Blumlein, but it was way too far ahead of its time. Radio was broadcasting in mono and all records and gramophones were only capable of mono playback, so there was no way for the consumer to conveniently hear music in stereo. Alan conducted the first ever stereo music recording at Abbey Road Studio Two in 1934, his previous tests mostly revolving around talking voice film examples of stereo sound. Once all the experiments had been concluded the files and technology were packed away into the archives.

Twenty years later stereo was starting to become a serious option, even though all mixes were still done in mono first and foremost, with stereo slowly being introduced as an additional extra. It wasn’t until the late ‘60s when stereo mixing became the exclusive format of choice for most artists and labels. With the introduction of stereo tape machines, came more complicated mixing consoles and hence more complicated recording sessions. In the early days of recording at Abbey Road, one or two microphones would be used to capture a performance. By the mid ‘50s it would not be unusual for a session to have eight or more microphones out on the studio floor. This scenario was even more exaggerated with the introduction of 4-track tape machines and larger recording consoles in the early ‘60s.

Technological Advances During The 1960s

Abbey Road witnessed a rapid growth in technological advances during the 1960s. This was a period for experimentation and pushing the still quite primitive equipment to its absolute limits. Rules were broken and boundaries crossed, some of which are still the norm in today’s modern studio. The 4-track tape machine was originally intended for use on large opera sessions, the idea being the orchestra could be recorded in stereo onto tracks 1 & 2 and leave tracks 3 & 4 for vocal overdubs. It soon became apparent this technology would be very useful for pop recording needs and eventually became the standard by the mid ‘60s. When pop music was introduced to the UK in the mid-1950s most record labels and executives believed it to be a fad. Most of the established recording engineers at Abbey Road didn’t want anything to do with it, so it was up to the younger new breed of engineers to work out ways of transferring the various recording skills they had acquired on classical sessions and adapt them to pop recordings.

In the early days of pop sessions, the idea was still very much to capture a performance as if the end listener was in the room with the band. With 4-track tape machines bands like The Beatles would start to layer up different sounds using overdubs on the subsequent tracks, after recording a basic backing performance on track 1. This opened the opportunities for adding all sorts of instruments not found on standard pop performances such as orchestras, sitars, sound effects and even double tracking the same voice or instrument twice to create thicker and lusher sound.

Artificial Double Tracking

It was this desire to thicken sounds that led to one of Abbey Road’s more famous inventions – Artificial Double Tracking, or ADT for short. John Lennon loved the effect of double tracking his voice but hated the arduous process involved. Recording a vocal and then rewinding the tape to record the exact same vocal on an adjacent track is a lot harder than it sounds. The pitch and timing of every single word sung on both performances must be exactly spot on, or instead of sounding lush and thick the results just sound messy. A lot of time and effort was involved, and Lennon found this particularly frustrating to the point of asking the then Head of Technical Services, Ken Townsend, to create an automatic way of creating the effect. Ken discovered that by feeding the original vocal from the 4-track tape machine into an adjacent BTR tape machine, and then manipulating the tape speed of the BTR, it would create a similar, although slightly artificial sounding version of double tracking. The fact it sounded more unnatural than the traditional method only excited the band further and resulted in the ADT effect being used on a large number of Beatles songs. Slight modifications of the same signal chain results in other sound effects being created such as Chorus and Flanging. This is a classic example of a piece of equipment being used in a way it was never designed for. The BTR tape machine was created to record sound as cleanly and accurately as possible, but here were producers, engineers and artists using it to distort and warp the recordings – rules are there to be broken.

Well into the middle of their career The Beatles had become accustomed to mixing down the four tracks from one tape machine, down to one track of a second 4-track tape machine, thus providing three more tracks to layer sounds onto. This process would be done up to four or five times and hence allowed very complex productions such as A Day in the Life to be recorded onto, what is now considered, a very basic tape machine. Recording in this way was a huge commitment, a long shot away from today’s standards where a band literally has 100s of tracks at their disposal via a computer. At the time this was a limitation for producers and artists worldwide and it wasn’t long before Abbey Road was introduced to the 8-track, then 16-track, 24-track and even 32 and 48-track tape machines with the new wave of digital devices from 1980s.

Quad Format

As with the increase of recording tracks found on a tape machine, producers started experimenting with increasing the number of speakers used for playback. Of particular note was a system called Quad which, as the same suggests, introduced two rear speakers behind the listener, thus providing surround sound. Quad had a short life span in the early ‘70s largely due to a lack of desire from the public to introduce yet more speakers into their front rooms.

The possibilities did capture the imagination of one particular band, who were impressed with the sonic advancements Quad offered and hence one of the biggest selling albums of all time was mixed in the Quad format at Abbey Road, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Unfortunately, the world wasn’t quite ready for this ground-breaking album in surround sound, but it did eventually find a home when released on the DVD format in the early 2000s, another example of technology being ahead of its time.

Film Scoring at Abbey Road

Over the years Abbey Road witnessed, embraced and pushed the boundaries for various multi speaker film formats since the ‘80s, when the studio stared offering orchestral film scoring as a service at the studios. Classic films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens and Robocop were part of the first crop of scores to be recorded at the studios using the latest Dolby playback equipment. This is a tradition still thriving today with the introduction of our Dolby Atmos Mix Stage in 2017, which enables film makers to not only record the orchestral score for their film at the studios, but also bring together the dialogue and sound effects to create the final mix using the most cutting-edge cinema sound available today.

Present Day

Abbey Road Studios continues to explore recording and production technology, pushing the boundaries of possibilities to the limits. Software emulations of classic technical equipment, used on the most famous recordings of all time, are now available to anyone making music anywhere in the world. New and exciting recording techniques for Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence are explored daily through the Abbey Road Red incubator programme, through forums and hackathons, thus ensuring we are not only ready for the future, but in the tradition of our forefathers, we continue to define the future of recording and mixing music for generations to come.
With The Gramophone Company founded in 1898, the music recording industry is a little over 100 years old. A colossal amount of innovation and progression has been made in those years. To say Abbey Road Studios witnessed, laid the foundations and in some cases created those advancements would be an understatement. No.3 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood is a very special place indeed.

A Brief Timeline of Innovation at Abbey Road Studios


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