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An Engineer Takes Us Through The History of Abbey Road, the World's Most Famous Studio

Ken Scott's resume includes classic albums by Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Elton John, the Beatles and more.
June 22, 2015, 4:33pm

Call it an aura, call it a presence, call it collective hysteria, regardless of however you decide to classify it, there is no denying the impact of Abbey Road Studios. It is, without argument, the most famous recording studio in the world for a reason. "Number 2 studio has been called the Sistine Chapel of recording and I can't argue," remarks renowned British engineer Ken Scott. "Every time I'm there I'll stand at the top of the stairs, looking down at where so many great performances have been captured so perfectly, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. I have heard the same kind of story from so many people that I know there is something very special and undeniable about that space." In the 80-plus years since its founding, the building has resided comfortably in an otherwise quiet suburb of London. Artists, engineers, producers, even owners have come and gone, but the legacy remains. The studio has been visited by groups as diverse as Pink Floyd, the Alan Parsons Project, the Hollies, and Kanye West and by composers such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, but the name will forever be tied to its lengthy collaboration the Beatles.

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Abbey Road wasn't always the studio that helped the Beatles break; in fact, it wasn't even always called "Abbey Road." Founded in 1931 by the Gramophone Company (who would merge to with EMI that very year), Abbey Road Studios was originally EMI Studios, a home for the audio conglomerate that not only recorded and published music but also manufactured electronics. From its introductory recording of the London Symphony Orchestra onward, the early years of the studio mostly saw it recording classical music. At that point it was far from a historic landmark, it was more of a complex, a service center. "I can't really say that EMI Studios had a reputation outside of the business at that time. Hardly anyone really knew what a recording studio was," Scott says of the studio's early years. To make matters worse, the early history of the studio is mostly lost. The engineers weren't interested in recording their accounts of the studio. All that has survived are the recordings themselves and a few stories lucky enough to be remembered and passed down to newer generations. When asked if he recalls any stories from the Studios' early days, Scott hazily offers one:

The one [story] that has stayed in my mind, unfortunately not very well, was about doing some recordings in a far off land with indigenous musicians playing their local style of music. This was in the days of going direct to disk, and the speed of the turntable was controlled by a weight falling at a constant speed. Unfortunately the engineers doing the recordings really had no idea how long any given piece of music was so they had to keep their fingers crossed that the musicians would finish before the weight reached the ground.

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Its not much, but it foreshadows the experimental spirit the studio would later be known to foster.

Between the 50s and 60s EMI saw the world changing and did their best to adapt. The focus switched to the emerging rock 'n' roll scene as the studio began to work with acts like the Shadows. The Shadows were everything the Beatles were supposed to be but weren't: They were clean and safe, the kind of boys that'd you'd like to take home to your mom. It was a sign of what was to come. The other significant change that occurred around this era was the disruption of the stronghold EMI's label had over the studio. Up until then, bands had recorded at the studios assigned (and often owned) by the labels releasing their work. Scott further explains this change: "Until the mid-60s the only acts that recorded [at EMI Studios] were acts signed to any of the various EMI labels… They were not allowed to go to other studios to record. This was also the case for acts signed to other labels, they had to record in the studios owned by their own label. Slowly this changed, and contracts changed, so that acts could move more freely. This meant that the incredible sound quality that was coming from EMI within almost every genre of music could be had by all."

From the moment the Beatles arrived at EMI, everything (name and all) changed. As a new recruit for the studio, Scott was able to witness most of their rise to fame. What it was like to first work with the Beatles? "Incredible. Awe-inspiring. Boring. The best pick up line any male could ever have. I was 16-years-old and working with the biggest band in the world. There really is no other way to describe those sessions, for me anyway, than amazing." Scott says the Beatles didn't only put EMI on the map, they "made the general population aware of the recording process and the importance of the studio and its personnel."

Scott remembers Abbey Road as a place where people were willing to take chances, even if they weren't aware of what they were doing. Asked about hearing "Helter Skelter" for the first time: "None of us could have conceived that 50 years on we'd still be talking about those recordings. Rock 'n' roll was less than 10 years old at that time." Yet it was a place where, time after time, everything came together in a remarkable way. Abbey Road continues to be a place that attracts experimental, genre-pushing artists. Scott likens its lasting relevance to a number of factors, most memorably the studio staff. "EMI Recording Studios had so many great people working there, from Norman Smith & Malcolm Addey with the experimentation they did for the Shadows and the early Beatles to Geoff Emerick and Alan Parsons with their work on later Beatles and Floyd. Plus the electronics engineers, people like Ken Townsend who invented ADT (Automatic Double Tracking). The place, the people, the acts and that wonderful time in history. It all came together and gave the world a legacy which will probably never be equaled."

This is what makes Converse Rubber Tracks' contest so fascinating. They are actually giving you the proverbial keys to unlock an opportunity to record at not only one of the best studios in the world, but also one of the most iconic. "With Converse being a brand that's devoted to being useful to the next generation of talent, our ongoing goal was to activate [Rubber Tracks] on a global level and extend this opportunity to artists worldwide. This next chapter of the program was our answer, and we're thrilled to do it in some of the most legendary studios in music history," Converse's Global Music Marketing Director Jed Lewis explains. As one of the early minds behind the project, Lewis understands the importance that Abbey Road has on the history of recording, "Abbey Road is the birthplace of legendary work that's shaped music history."

The question, then, becomes: can these bands hack it? Its one thing to dream of being the next Pink Floyd from the comfort of your bedroom, its another to actually do it. Lewis isn't worried one bit, however, "Through the Converse Rubber Tracks program, we've had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented young artists we've seen to date. While we do have a thorough selection process for the program that considers musical talent, dedication, and how active the artist is through playing shows, touring, releasing music, and more, the caliber of talent that we've seen register for each of our studios is certainly up for the experience."

Following Beatlemania, Abbey Road had, for better or worse (depending on who you ask) transformed. Scott was let go following The White Album by the studio's new manager, who had hated pop. The studio formally changed names in the early 70s, and it became a hotbed for soundtrack composition in the 1980s. Today, it is a landmark and a tourist attraction. People line the streets hoping to get a peek at the building that produced so many iconic works but, attraction or not, its primary function remains production, recording, and mastering. As always, Abbey Road adapts and survives. Over the past decade, hyper-stylized pop stars like Kanye West and Lady Gaga have flocked to the studio hoping its atmosphere will rub off on them, while underground artists like Sunn O))) rely on its mastering capabilities. For musicians, Abbey Road remains as diverse, as important as ever. Why? "Great recordings," Scott says. "As simple as that."

Want to record at Abbey Road? I mean, DOY. Here's your chance to, courtesy of Converse Rubber Tracks. Hurry… the clock is ticking!