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Old 19th February 2010, 10:56 PM   #1
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Default Abbey Road and the Day Studio Music Died

From this morning's Wall St. Journal:

By ERIC FELTEN

Rumors abound that money-hemorrhaging music behemoth EMI may sell Abbey Road Studios, the sanctum sanctorum where the Beatles recorded most of their albums. Britain's National Trust is entertaining the idea of bidding on it, aiming to add the famed recording studio to its stable of historic castles and country houses. If that happens, will Abbey Road still function as a recording studio, or will it become a rope-lined destination for tourists to traipse through in their stations of Beatles veneration?

As most news articles about the potential sale pointed out, studios are going the way of the great auk. The digital-recording revolution has allowed producers armed with laptops and a few padded rooms in a basement to forgo the expensive environs of the traditional recording hall. Yet this comes at a cost: The demise of great recording studios is contributing to the bland, characterless sound of so much popular music today.

Particular studios have been crucial in defining the sounds of whole eras. Capitol Studios in Hollywood gave the Sinatra years their sonic signature. What would Elvis's essential recordings have sounded like without the cobbled-together peculiarities of the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn.? The airiness of classic '50s jazz owed much to the acoustic properties of an old Armenian church in Manhattan converted by Columbia Records into its 30th Street Studio.

Miles Davis's masterpiece, "Kind of Blue," was recorded at 30th Street, and so too, just a couple of months later, was Dave Brubeck's album "Time Out." David Simons, in his book "Studio Stories," suggests that the success of those two records owed something to how they sounded, something that wasn't just a function of the quality of the recording equipment. There was the sympathetic resonance of the studio's unvarnished wood floor and the distant reverberations reflected by its towering ecclesiastic architecture: "To hear 30th Street is to hear drummer Joe Morello's snare and kick-drum shots echoing off the 100-foot ceiling during the percussion break in Dave Brubeck's great 'Take Five.'"

Similarly, it takes only a few seconds to recognize a classic Motown recording. Much of that is due to the inventive, custom electronics that Berry Gordy Jr. had made for his studio. But it is also thanks to the funky fidelity unique to "the pit," a concrete-block room where most of the label's hits were recorded. "The secret of the so-called 'Motown Sound' was room identity," Hank Cosby once told an interviewer. A producer, songwriter and saxophonist for the label in its heyday, Cosby said: "The drums sat in the same place for years; nothing was ever disturbed. If you moved any of the instruments a couple of feet in either direction it would have changed the sound completely."

"Every great studio has a distinctive characteristic," says Al Schmitt, an engineer who has earned a raft of Grammys for his work recording singers such as Frank Sinatra and Natalie Cole. Mr. Schmitt maintains a personal armory of vintage microphones and obscure electronics, but he says the best equipment in the world can't overcome a room that has no life to it. As for Abbey Road, he recorded part of Diana Krall's CD "The Look of Love" there, and he says the studio "has its own sound," even when no one is in the room. "Once you open the faders," he says, referring to turning up the microphones, "you can hear an incredible ambience."

Matt Rollings has been the top piano player in country music for more than a decade. Best known for his work with Lyle Lovett, he also works as a producer, most recently honchoing Mary Chapin Carpenter's new disc "The Age of Miracles." Though Mr. Rollings has a home studio for roughing out projects, he says that it can never compete with a space with real acoustic properties. "A great room acts like an instrument," Mr. Rollings says. "It has a voice."

What happens to such voices when modern technologies make it possible to record in small, acoustically "dead" rooms? Individual instruments are captured separately, the parts are assembled, and then synthetic ambience is added to mimic real studio spaces. It's the aural equivalent of trying to capture the taste of pit-smoked barbecue by splashing liquid smoke around. It also creates a certain generic sameness to the sound of modern pop, according to Joe Ferla, an engineer who has worked as a producer for artists such as Roberta Flack and recorded jazz musicians such as Michael Brecker. "Everybody's using the same thing today," says Mr. Ferla, "the same cheap microphones, the same computer plug-ins."

Perhaps the most abused "plug-in" has been a computer program called "Auto-Tune," a crutch that digitally fixes singers' pitch when they warble away from A-440. Unless used with the utmost discretion, the correction produces a processed, electronic—even robotic—timbre. At first, engineers worked hard not to let their Auto-Tuning show. But following the lead of rapper T-Pain and then Kanye West, everyone started cranking Auto-Tune up to 11. Even the dinkiest of home studios has access to that same computer program, contributing to a Velveeta-cheesy uniformity of sound.

Alas, many of the great, distinctive studios are long gone. Columbia's 30th Street Studio was demolished decades ago. But some essential rooms still do their part to shape the quality of recorded sound. The Power Station in New York, where Bruce Springsteen recorded "The River," made its mark with an impossible combination of echoing ambience and limpid clarity, and it is going strong, now called Avatar. Capitol Studios in Hollywood remains the go-to space for anyone looking for an honest-sounding big band.

Then there is Abbey Road. Let's hope it remains more than just a museum piece, more than a memento mori of how studios once shaped the sound of great recordings.
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Old 19th February 2010, 11:00 PM   #2
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Old 19th February 2010, 11:18 PM   #3
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Better that it should become a posession of the National Trust than that it should be bulldozed and redeveloped. OTOH, if it's a fine instrument, like a Stradivarius, then there are a shedload of musicians out there with shedloads of money who must be itching to buy and exploit it. No?

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Old 23rd February 2010, 04:52 PM   #4
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I am a complete philistine, I would line up to pay 10 pounds (UK cash) to traipse behind the ropes through the Abbey Rd studio. We tried to find it to stare at the front door in 2000, but there are 9 Abbey Roads in the Nicholson map and we tubed to two of the wrong ones.
I agree with the author's appreciation of sonic space. My first band played in a Junior High auditorium that was wedged shaped with brick walls. The result was awful and almost unplayable. Finland is building a new symphonic hall because of something similar in their old one. My high school auditorium the band played in was a parallelapiped, long and tall, the result was okay. My church just converted a tall, retangular space that sounded okay to a gym to move to a round room with a conical ceiling with delay lines and sound by Yamaha. The result is homogenized.
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Old 23rd February 2010, 06:45 PM   #5
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According to a news release by EMI, Abbey Road Studio is not for sale.
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