Then & Now - A Brief History of The World's Most Famous Recording Studios

3rd September 2019

To celebrate Abbey Road month, we're taking a look back at how the studios have changed over the years, from its first inception as a recording studio back in 1929, to a present-day place of pilgrimage for artists across the globe.

Originally a nine-bedroom Georgian townhouse built in 1831, Number 3, Abbey Road was converted into studios in 1929 once the Gramophone Company obtained the premises. The property was in an ideal location; it came with large grounds and was close enough to traditional performance spaces of the time but distant enough from the noise and vibration of traffic. Thus, the foundations of the studios were laid at the rear of the main building. By 1931, following a merge with Columbia Graphophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries, the studios became known as EMI Recording Studios.

Since its transformation, this once residential plot has become the venue for a host of the world's most celebrated recordings from artists including Oasis, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Ed Sheeran, The Hollies, Adele, Ella Fitzgerald and of course, The Beatles. Not to mention the incredible cinematic soundtracks that have also been conducted here, from Harry Potter and Star Wars to Lord Of The Rings and Indiana Jones.

More importantly, it has been the home of some of the most important technological breakthroughs. Since EMI engineer Alan Blumlein patented stereo at Abbey Road in 1931, the studios have been famed for innovation in recording technology, largely developed by the Record Engineering Development Department (REDD) who were responding to the needs of the artists and producers using the rooms. Their innovations include the REDD and TG desks, as well as studio techniques such as Artificial Double Tracking (ADT), created by studio technician Ken Townsend, who went on to become the studios’ MD, as well as Vice President of EMI Studios Group.
 
 

Studio One

The largest purpose-built recording studio in the world, this space can easily accommodate a 110 piece orchestra and 110 piece choir, its dimensions measuring 92x52 feet with a 40-foot high ceiling. During the first decades of the studios' existence, it was devoted largely to the recording of classical music. For the grand opening back in 1931, Sir Edward Elgar conducted the London Symphony Orchestra as they played Land Of Hope And Glory. Elgar addressed the orchestra prior to the performance with the words, "Good morning, gentlemen. Glad to see you all. Very light programme this morning. Please play this tune as though you've never heard it before", which would subsequently mark the first recording made at the studio.

You can watch the video of this performance here.

But as the years went on, pop music came to the fore and classical music suffered as a result. And, with Studio One operating largely as a recording space for classical music, it was being used a lot less often. By the 1980s, musicians and engineers even began using it as a space to play five-a-side football and badminton, before plans had been drawn up to transform the space into a car park and four smaller studios.

Today, thanks to a deal struck with scoring facility Anvil by then studio manager Ken Townsend, Studio One is used most often to record the soundtracks to some of Hollywood's biggest blockbuster movies, the first of which being Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981, while recent titles include Avengers: Endgame, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Captain Marvel. The combination of the room's incredible acoustics and the availability of top local orchestras have made it a hot-spot for Hollywood producers and European filmmakers.
 
 
 
The design of the studio has also undergone a number of alterations. Styled by well known Art Deco designers, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners (who also designed the West London Hoover Building), Studio One was roofed with latticed steel trussles and distinct baffle boards on the walls. To begin with, orchestra's used to record in concert halls and churches, and so they based the look of the studio on these spaces, complete with a stage and seating for a large audience. Since then, the original decorations have been covered with reflective acoustic panels, offering more reverb time and making the room feel more "live". The distinct parquet flooring in Studio One however remains unchanged, as this helps to give the room its unique sound; if this is removed, the sound of the room changes.

Studio One's control room marked the biggest change to the space. Originally, in the 1930's the room was used to cut straight to disc and was a lot smaller in size. But, as technology advanced and recording sessions got a lot more complicated, a larger control room was built to accommodate more equipment. Today, this space boasts a 72 channel AMS Neve 88RS recording console, a 7.1 surround sound monitor section, a Neve SP2 scoring panel, a playback rig, record rig and video rig... to name just a few.
 
 

Studio Two

Arguably the most famous studio in the world, let alone within the Abbey Road complex, Studio Two is considered a mecca by many in the music business and music fans worldwide. Opening in 1931 as one of the original three studios at Abbey Road, Studio Two was made famous by The Beatles and Pink Floyd, but continues to operate at the heart of popular music, playing host to landmark recordings by Adele, Radiohead, Muse, Lady Gaga, Oasis, Kanye West, The Streets, George Ezra, Ed Sheeran, Kano and Noel Gallagher.

In its early years, the space was used largely by big bands playing jazz and swing and smaller chamber ensembles, with a lot of comedy recordings taking place throughout the 1950s. When rock ‘n’ roll became popular in the mid-1950s, artists such as Cliff Richard and The Shadows started to dominate the space and it became known as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Room. Then, in June 1962, The Beatles recorded their first demo with Sir George Martin, which marked the start of an iconic relationship and perhaps the most influential period in the studios’ history, with the band recording 90% of their material here.
 
 
 
Unlike Studios One and Three, the room hasn’t changed too much over the years, remaining much the same as it was in the late 1950s – the famous staircase being added in 1957. It has a truly unique look about it and a ton of identifiable features; from the original herringbone floor and distinct dovetail bricks, to its baffles and ceiling-high isolation screens used to separate sections of the room and customise the acoustics. However, the hanging quilts were not the same as they are now. They weren’t introduced until the ‘50s, and were originally made from parachute silk and stuffed with dried Nova Scotian seaweed, which introduced a unique odour.

Much like Studio One, Studio Two’s control room marks the only noticeable change to the space since it was built. Originally adjacent to the live area, in 1957 the room was moved upstairs to create space for more equipment, with the original room being converted into an isolation recording booth in 2016. Prior to the Beatles-era, there was a distinct division between artists and engineers, with the control room being the sole domain of the engineers and technical staff. But as the culture changed over the years, and artists like the Beatles began to use the studio as a space to experiment with sound and recording techniques, artists and producers were given more freedom to enter the control room, which meant a lot of running up and down the studio stairs.