'A new era': Inside the biggest changes in Abbey Road's history
Abbey Road, the world’s most famous recording studio, has recently undergone some of the biggest changes in its 87-year history. Over the past year or so, the iconic space has seen a number of major transformations, both technological and philosophical. PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble paid Mark Robertson, head of brand and marketing at Abbey Road, a visit to find out how the studio is preparing to enter “a new era”…
As PSNEurope enters Abbey Road’s bustling cafeteria, Mark Robertson, the studio’s head of brand and marketing, offers us a mug of coffee and takes from the fridge a can of water for himself. “We’ve just gone plastic-free,” he tells us as we take our seats. And while this eco- friendly gesture may not rank particularly high on the list of changes Abbey Road has recently undergone, it is certainly indicative of the fresh approach it is taking to each and every facet of its offering.
Last year, the facility opened two brand new studios in the form of The Front Room and The Gatehouse, aimed at offering emerging stars a more affordable alternative to the hallowed – and significantly more expensive – spaces of Studios 2 and 3, along with a purpose-built, state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos Premier-accredited and IMAX audio-compatible post production space dubbed The Mix Stage, designed to complement its film scoring offering. According to Robertson, the new rooms reflect a new approach to business that has been implemented across the board.
Once a closed off, almost inaccessible entity to those lacking the blockbusting budgets required to pass through its iconic entrance, its ethos today is one of openness; a place to welcome all comers, not just those scaling rock and pop’s upper echelons. Not that it is trying to dispense with its legacy – the ever-present army of Beatles fanatics and tourists found scribbling on its exterior walls and posing for photos on that famous zebra crossing during the August downpour blighting the capital during our visit a constant reminder of its global appeal – but rather to engage with a new generation of artists and show that Abbey Road is far more than a monument to a bygone era.
“We’re getting people to recognise this place as being much more approachable,” says Robertson, who has played a key role in reconstructing Abbey Road’s identity. “We’re doing really well, but it’s going to take time.”
One of the ways in which it is doing this is by equipping its new studios with the highest spec gear possible within their price range. The Gatehouse has been kitted out with an AMS Neve 16 fader BCM10/2 Mk2 desk, recording and software packages including ProTools HDX2, Logic X and Ableton, as well as Focal SM9 monitoring and a vast microphone selection comprising modern and vintage models from AEA, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Brauner, Neumann, Sennheiser, Shure, Sontronics and many more. Meanwhile, the more compact Front Room, features an SSL 24 fader Duality delta desk, Pro Tools HDX2, Logic X and Ableton recording and software options, ATC SCM25A monitoring and shares The Gatehouse’s comprehensive mic collection.
Another way in which Robertson has been expanding Abbey Road’s client base is via the appointment of Chic legend Nile Rodgers as its chief creative advisor. Since taking on the role, Rodgers has helped attract a vast number of contemporary artists, the majority of which had never before set foot inside Abbey Road. Among them, Laughta, James Bay, Jess Glynne, Mura Masa, JP Cooper, Novelist, Jammer, Tinashe and a great many more.
“It’s an amazing opportunity and responsibility and damn it’s fun,” said Rodgers. “I’d never believed that at this point in my life, this type of opportunity, this type of situation and these types of results could be possible in such a short time that I’ve been here. I don’t know how many songs I’ve done here, how many artists I’ve brought here, it’s just crazy. From shooting episodic videos to transforming the studios into a magical universe that doesn’t exist and using it as a laboratory to not only indulge myself but also watch other artists get caught up in this magic that we are starting to create, it’s really amazing. And dealing with everybody, from the technical staff who have been here forever to all the new school guys as I have done. We have a blast. It’s amazing.”
Evidently it’s a move that has not just reinvigorated Abbey Road, but also resulted in plenty of new business passing through its doors, as Robertson discusses with PSNEurope…
Just how much of a transformation has there been at Abbey Road over the past year?
It’s a new era. Following the purchase of the studio by Universal there has been a major investment programme, and it’s got to be the biggest transformation since we opened in 1931. We’ve been enhancing services and facilities across the core studios, we’ve added new isolation booths, upgraded existing gear, and we’re very mindful of this being a premium complex, so we’re constantly thinking about how we can make it more accessible and build relationships with artists at the start of their career. Perhaps as they develop we can take them through to the bigger spaces, but the idea was to create some smaller rooms to make the place more accessible, while keeping the same magic and offering access to our vintage gear and instruments. We made a conscious effort to repurpose existing rooms – we didn’t want new builds. So we converted a garage into what is now called The Gatehouse, which is the bigger of the two new rooms. And the other, smaller room is called The Front Room because the natural light that comes in means she and her producer stayed longer than they normally would for a writing session. We’re also learning from the artists’ feedback on what Abbey Road means to them. Sometimes you can forget the appeal and the magic of coming to work at Abbey Road. We’ve started to film a lot of artist-related content, again to make Abbey Road feel more accessible. There is a perception of Abbey Road being a bit austere and unattainable for many, so it’s been a surprise for some people to come in and not only have the standards and expectations of our staff and our engineers reinforced, but also to find out how lovely everybody is.
So how have you been able to combine such a high technical spec in the new rooms with a more affordable cost?
Effectively, Universal have said yes to everything the team here asked for. They want to fully support the place as an ongoing concern. We have a technical services department that spec’d out what we thought we would need. So when you look at something like the Mix Stage, it was about building a room from the ground up that could offer flexibility for all the different kinds of projects we hope to attract.
Has the perception of Abbey Road been a problem when it comes to attracting new business without major budgets?
Absolutely. For the past 18 months we’ve been really mindful of that. For example, we’d never really done PR before, so we started to get our people talking to the press about their craft and humanising the place, making the most of the personalities we have here and getting them talking on panels and events across Europe and in the US. What’s probably done even more for us is creating content with artists, sharing studio insights from their projects on social media. We’ve had people as a result saying, Well if this person can go there, I can go there. Before, we kept everything quiet and private, we didn’t talk about the people who came here. That’s definitely creating a bit of a shift in perception and hopefully we can continue to do more of that.
We’re also aware that there is a big community of home music makers who don’t necessarily need a studio but still respect Abbey Road as a high-end facility, and there is an appeal to working here – our engineers are winning Grammys, Emmys, they are at the top of their game, so there is an appeal in having the Abbey Road stamp of quality. So we now offer online mixing and online mastering, and we’re getting closer to that community and understanding their needs.
We launched a free app called Top Line last autumn, which is really designed for songwriters and producers to capture ideas on the go, so you can import a track, add two layers on top of that and then send it back to the producer you’re working with as an idea. That was designed to demonstrate that we have an understanding and a commitment to that audience and it’s part of the package of online services that come with the new studios.
What has the feedback been like from artists using the new studios?
It’s been consistently positive from everybody. People want to come back. Nile has a permanent role with us now as our chief creative advisor, so this is his base in the UK. That happened because he was coming here regularly and he’s also a real symbol of everything Abbey Road is about. He’s got this great heritage but he’s absolutely contemporary. Just look at all the contemporary artists he’s working with – Mura Masa, Anderson Paak, the people he’s been bringing in here have been really impressive. Mura Masa is a good example. When recording his track Love$ick he chose to bring A$AP Rocky here to do the vocals, to wow and impress him. Yes, they are new rooms, but the quality is right up there.
And it’s also about the efficiency and expertise of the engineers. Everything is always set up, there are so many new things and such a variety of projects coming through here that they can probably teach most artists coming through a few tips or introduce them to some new gear that they perhaps haven’t tried before.
How is the Universal buyout affecting Abbey Road’s day-to-day business?
Their approach has been very respectful, they don’t want to do anything to damage reputation of the brand. They asked the team here what they would like to do in terms of enhancing the facilities and they did [what was asked of them]. For many years, Abbey Road had been under- invested in and there was a long list of things, such as opening a school to help develop the next generation of production and engineering talent and – given that we’ve got this highly successful scoring business – looking at how we take that side of the business on to the next stage. Opening up The Mix Stage allows people to take a score and blend it with the film’s dialogue and sound effects, which hugely enhances our range of services to those clients. It’s been all about protecting the future and enhancing what is already here.
How much work goes into ensuring Abbey Road provides the highest calibre of engineers?
Unlike a lot of studios, our engineers are full-time. We tend to take most of them from a course called the Tonmeister at the universities of Surrey and Guildford. And people don’t tend to leave. It’s a long, hard training process, many long hours and days. People say it takes longer to become an Abbey Road engineer than it does to become a brain surgeon! It takes years to make your way up. Stereo was invented here, countless recording techniques, particularly in the ‘60s in the Beatles years, were developed by the EMI in-house engineers. They built their own desks like the REDD desks and the TG desks. Techniques like artificial double-tracking came from people that worked here. Techniques and innovation have been handed down from generation to generation, and we are still very focused on that. We created something called De-mix technology, which is like source separation – you can break down something that’s mono or could be a bootleg and then our engineers are able to mix up again.
We’ve also got something called Abbey Road Red, which is a start-up incubator. We’re thinking about what Abbey Road needs to look like in 10 years time. What are the technologies that are being developed out in the market that we can bring back to our clients? We’re very much tapping into that, using our network to help grow those start-ups. And we’re doing more experimentation in-house. A lot of work is going on with spatial audio, for instance.
What are the key challenges and opportunities for Abbey Road today?
We can speak very confidently about our film scoring business. We’re very lucky that a lot of film composers choose to come here. A lot of American composers come here and they can listen to a piece of music and recognise it was recorded in Studio 1 or Studio 2. They love the rooms and the efficiency of the engineers and the orchestras in the UK. Probably around seven out of 10 of big blockbuster films are recorded here. The Mix Stage was designed to enhance our services to film clients. Again, it’s about raising awareness of that, particularly with the film community in the US. It’s a challenge, growing that. Everyone has been really impressed, but it’s a case of bringing more work in here, particularly when a lot of those people may have established relationships elsewhere. All in all, what we’re doing is really working. It’s making a difference.