The Technical Constraints That Made Abbey Road So Good

What modern recording artists can learn from the studio's early days

Justin Lancy

On a cool, English Sunday afternoon, there was a crowd loitering on the sidewalks of this wealthy London neighborhood called St. John’s Wood. Some people were waiting to use the zebra crosswalk made famous on the cover of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album. Others were using pens to scrawl messages on the front of Abbey Road Studios, where that album—and many others—had been made. Things like “Imagine all the people,” and “John Lennon Lives!”

I was there because of the music, too. In a rare public event, Abbey Road Studio’s most famous room was being opened to the public for a lecture by Ken Scott, an engineer on The Beatles' seminal “White Album.” I had assumed that the topic, a look at “vintage recording techniques and equipment,” occupied a fairly esoteric niche when I bought my ticket. Judging from the long line to get into the building, though, it was clear that music nerdery (like many other nerdy things) had gone mainstream.

Joining Scott were two younger music engineers from America, Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan. Kehew and Ryan are the authors of Recording The Beatles, a 500-plus-page volume created from 15 years of research and housed in a shell designed to look like a old-school tape reel box. Recording The Beatles is, all at once, a labor of love, a celebration of music recording culture and, quite likely, the most detailed historical compendium of photography and information about the Fab Four’s time in the studio. The book is also a subtle illumination of the dynamic relationship that occurs between people and their tools, a constantly shifting balance which can either enable—or thwart—inspiration.

Abbey Road is famous for a good reason—and each year thousands of visitors flock to take photos and scrawl messages on its walls. But it’s more than just a tourist attraction. It’s a building full of history lessons that could help creative people working today.

The sanctum sanctorum of Abbey Road is Studio Two, the room where the majority of The Beatles' recordings were made.

Standing at the threshold of Studio Two, it doesn’t look all that different from a small school gymnasium: a big rectangular box with white walls, 24-foot-high ceilings, and a parquet floor. But as soon as we entered, any thoughts of dribbling basketballs fell away, as I began to remember images of John Lennon and Paul McCartney standing around a microphone at the far end of the room, working out their harmonies.

For melodic pop music, Studio Two has physical, tonal qualities which transcend its humble appearance. “It emphasizes the midrange,” Kehew says, ”and has a warm, short reverb unusual for a room its size.” These reverberant qualities are so well known that Abbey Road’s rental contract actually prohibits any sampling of its distinctive acoustic signature. As I stood in the room, I could hear the echoes of the vocals and kick drums on some of my favorite recordings of all time.

To my left was a collection of vintage recording equipment arrayed in the corner (courtesy of the EMI Archive Trust). The first item on display was a gramophone, circa 1925, and the collection progressed chronologically through a series of tape recorders, effects, and microphones before arriving at mixing desks used into the 1980s. If you included the modern mixer across the room being used to run the PA system, the gear present provided a fairly complete historical timeline of the last 90 years of recording science.

In many ways, this exhibit at Abbey Road Studios embodies both the history of music recording culture and so many of the changes which have transformed it in our modern era. EMI Studios, as it was originally called, was renamed Abbey Road Studios in 1970 after the Beatles album which made it famous. In the intervening years, its producers have had to navigate massive economic shifts in its industry. Their challenge: Find a way to use cutting-edge technology while, at the same time, stay true to the studio’s historical roots.

When each of the tools in that display was first introduced, many music experts were totally wrong about the impact they would have on creative culture. “Records will kill live music,” they said as the phonograph gained popularity. Tape recording was initially viewed with suspicion by recordists accustomed to using disc-cutting lathes.

As digital technology arrived, many people thought it would surely relegate analog recording equipment to the scrap heap. In what seems like a stunning example of shortsightedness, some of Abbey Road’s most noteworthy gear was sold off in a 1980 sale as “memorabilia” at bargain-basement prices. One example—A 4-track recorder used on "Sgt. Peppers’" went for just $800 (that's $2,300 in today's money).

Why does this pattern of poor prediction repeat, time and again? At least part of it seems to be due to the gap between when a new tool is first introduced and when people gain an understanding of how to use it artistically. This is, perhaps, an explanation for the (incorrect) idea that “technology is ruining the soul of music.”

What new tools do is force a reconsideration of the relative strengths and weaknesses of old tools. After some time goes by, creative professionals generally develop ways to blend the best aspects of both the old and the new.

Kehew agrees that every tool can have a place as part of an artistic palate. “Old is not good or bad,” he said. “Question it. Try it. Listen. Buy weird bad gear and great quality gear—see what it does for you. I love Jon Brion's quote—‘I don't want to be Lo-Fi or Hi-Fi, I want to be ALL-Fi!’”

Scott touched on this in the lecture too, recounting that this was the approach that caused Beatles producer George Martin to turn down Abbey Road’s first 8-track recorder for use on the White Album. The 4-track recorders used for years by The Beatles had been specially modified to help create some of their signature sounds. Because the new 8-track recorder lacked those modifications, Martin declined to bring it into the session. His thinking, Scott said, was that it would be better for the process to maintain continuity.

In an ironic twist, Scott mentioned that The Beatles themselves had a different idea. They decided to use the 8-track without Martin’s permission, which got Scott and another engineer into a fair amount of trouble. The fact that the device was used to track parts of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” probably helped accelerate the forgiveness. Even though new technologies can kill off old ways of working, it’s ultimately up to humans to decide the hour that they should.

“It was the 60s,” Scott said of the incident. “Rules were meant to be broken.”

Justin Lancy

At the beginning of the Beatles era, technicians had to complete what amounted to an extended apprenticeship program—and were even required to wear white lab coats (Winston Churchill once quipped that Abbey Road made him feel like he was visiting a hospital). Prospective engineers were brought up through the ranks slowly and instructed on the "rules of the process" at each stage.

But as the 60s went on, culture—specifically counter-culture—began seeping into the studio and changing that dynamic relationship between the engineers and their tools. Over time, the room became filled with incredibly skilled people who were willing to break any rule if it helped their artists create new and interesting sounds.

It was this combination of playfulness, openness to risk-taking, and deep professionalism which enabled Abbey Road’s technicians to respond to seemingly off-the-wall requests from The Beatles. Engineers began to record amps inside cupboards to get unique sounds. The studio’s tape recorders were rewired to automatically double-track performances. The tapes themselves were sped-up, slowed-down, sliced, and looped—to great effect. Even a joke, Scott says, was turned into an engineering puzzle that he had to solve when John Lennon took him up on his “suggestion” to fit the entire band in a small utility closet for the recording of “Yer Blues.”

A sort of positive feedback loop was happening: Culture was driving the development of technologies which, in turn, emboldened that creative culture to go even farther to create new tools and techniques. This embrace of the unorthodox didn’t mean that the Abbey Road staff abandoned everything they had been taught in the “white coat days,” though. In fact, Scott says it was that training which gave engineers the necessary skills to successfully and intelligently break the rules and develop all those new sounds and techniques.

But has that cycle continued? Scott, Kehew, and Ryan each pointed out that, since that time, the dynamic interaction between tools and culture has evolved in ways which may now be undermining the mindset that made Abbey Road successful.

In some ways, the process of recording music is very much the same as it was in the time of The Beatles: Stick a microphone in front of someone or something and hit the “RECORD” button.

When you listen to recordings from a generation or two ago, though, you often hear all sorts of rough edges: large dynamic transitions between loud and quiet, the sounds of oversaturated tape and tubes, instruments bleeding together. Chunked notes. Vocals that are out of pitch. Drums that drift in and out of time. Mistakes. Lots of mistakes.

Today’s creative paradox is that this human element, which often makes a song distinct or artistically interesting, is the thing which is almost always erased from modern productions.

“Do mistakes make music better?” I asked Kehew. Not really, he responded. It’s just that, when it comes to what people like about music, there was actually only one thing worse than these imperfections: perfection.

“I’ve done it and seen it many times," he said. “Take something flawed, work on it 'til every part is ‘improved’ then listen. It's worse. How could that be? Every piece is now better. But it's a worse final product.”

This tendency towards incessant improvement has been encouraged by the power of modern tools. These days, sounds are almost always passed through a computer at some point in the recording process. These computers have their own working paradigms—things like cutting-and-pasting, the automated repetition of tasks, and “infinite undo”—which gives them incredible power to alter performances. It also adds more potential for overpolishing and something recording engineers refer to as "option paralysis," a state where the sheer number of choices available prevents decisions from being made. Almost any element of a recording can be changed, right up until the moment that a song is released to the public.

The limitations of Beatles-era technology were substantial by comparison, and they forced a commitment to creative choices at earlier stages of the recording process. If, for example, an engineer wanted to exceed the number of recorded tracks that their tape machine allowed, two or more tracks had to be mixed together and “bounced” to an open track elsewhere. Cuts were physical, done with razor blades and tape. Mixes were performed by engineers in real time. Big mistakes at any point in the process could force an entire recording to be scrapped.

It was because artists were often stuck with the mistakes they made that they sometimes decided to embrace them. Once while recording a Beatles song called “Glass Onion” Scott accidentally erased a large number of drum parts that had been painstakingly overdubbed. Certain that he’d be fired, he played the tape to John Lennon. To Scott’s surprise, Lennon said that he liked the unexpected effect created by the glitch—and both the track and Scott stayed.

Scott was clear in his opinion: It isn’t so much the use of these new tools as it is their overuse that serves to undermine musicality.

“The trick,” Kehew says, "is a savvy or talented producer or engineer knows when to be bold and stop. To let character and roughness and lack of polish exist. I can bet most people spend more time polishing something than writing or creating the substance of it. The only cure is to work faster, more often, so you don't treat every damn thing as being so precious that 'It Must Be Perfect For All Time.'”

I asked Kevin Ryan if he was able to heed Scott’s warning in his own work. He laughed and acknowledged that knowing the risks of overusing digital tools didn’t make it any easier for him to resist that temptation. Kehew’s final word on the subject was, I thought, an especially Beatle-like principle for not overworking something: “Let it be what it was,” he says. “If it's not that good, you shouldn't be recording it.”

Justin Lancy

Today, Abbey Road straddles a line between modern culture and English Heritage. It has become Pop Music’s Westminster Abbey: partly a tourist attraction, partly a working cathedral where all the traditional rites and rituals are still observed.

Abbey Road is still producing hits though—even as tighter budgets and rising costs have caused many other recording facilities to close. An almost unbelievable number of influential artists and projects have worked (and continue to work) at the studio. Even if you eliminated the entire Beatles oeuvre the list is impressive. Pink Floyd’s "Dark Side of the Moon” was tracked there. Acts like Kate Bush, Elton John, Oasis, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Green Day, U2, Radiohead, and Kanye West have all recorded there. Countless film scores, too—Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings.

Were these artists attracted to working at Abbey Road, at least in some small measure, because of the notoriety of The Beatles? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are probably more compelling reasons why so many great projects have emerged from St. John’s Wood.

The people who worked at Abbey Road during the era of The Beatles enjoyed taking risks with whatever tools they had to work with. They felt that great work always required a lot of skill, imagination, some serendipity, and—above all—a human touch. It’s that spirit which seems central to creating enduring work and will hopefully continue to be a tradition that, as Kehew says, “honors the past and inspires today's ideas.”

“I love history,” he says. “But never get hung up on what happened before. Today and tomorrow are as exciting… and always will be.”