This is a story about how I got to live my fantasy

aroad
©Joanna Bolme

“This is a story about how I got to live my fantasy of walking through the door of the building at 3 Abbey Road and saying, “We’re working in studio 2.”It’s second only to the one where I walk through the door and the receptionist says “Good morning Mr Martin.” This was made possible by my generous friend Elliott Smith, whom I believe had a similar fantasy. We were joined by our buddies Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, who took care of the recording duties, and Sam Coomes from Quasi, the best rock band in the world.

Elliott, Sam and I arrive at studio two around noon. We walk into the control room and meet friendly house engineers Paul Hicks and Chris Bolster. Rob and Tom have taken a wrong turn and are now heading farther and farther away from the studio. Let’s have a look around, shall we? The mixing board is a Neve VRP Legend with flying faders, not a little EMI board with a grinning St. George and Geoff Emerick permanently attached to it like my fantasies have led me to believe. Oh no! One of those screens with the EQ display. I’ll get sucked in I know, just like those dryers at the Laundromat. A Studer A820 24-track analogue tape machine. There’s a machine bay, so you can wheel in whatever you want, digital or analogue. They have a lot to choose from. Assorted outboard gear that Rob and Tom decide not to use. A comfy couch and chairs. Coffee! Okay, now for the studio downstairs. It’s huge. The ceilings are 24 feet high and the floor is 38 feet x 60 feet. On the studio statistics sheet they list the reverberation time at 1.2 seconds. Mounted on hinges and wheels against the main walls are four acoustic screens that are nearly as tall as the room, and about 1/3 the width, so you can break it up. There are lots of smaller screens you can use for isolation. We’ve got a Steinway grand piano, a Steinway tack piano (actually there are no tacks, just very stiff, ridged hammers), a Hammond C3 organ with two Leslies to choose from, and an electric harmonium. Let’s see, microphones. Hmm, Neumann, Neumann, Neumann…you name it, they got it. I go over to check out the rented Ludwig vintage drum kit. Cute. Those cymbals look like trouble though. There are a pair of very weathered looking Coles 4038’s perched nearby. “Hey Paul, how old are these?” “Pretty old.” “Like Beatles old?” “Yeah.” I press my cheek against one of them. (Insert Beatles fantasy here.) I open my eyes. Rob and Tom have arrived and are inspecting the drum set. All the cymbals but the hi-hat have been nixed. The heads have to go too. They want Remo Ambassador coated top and clear bottom. “Excuse me Tom, there’s a Joey Waronker on the phone for you.” Everyone, “Tell him to come over!” Joey played drums on a couple songs from Elliott’s album, XO, and happened to be in town with R.E.M. He has just arrived at the studio and is now on the phone with another music store. It seems to be a bit more complicated to rent gear in London than L.A. He is being very patient and speaking very calmly. He sounds like my chiropractor right before the big adjustment. “Now what I would like to do, is have you bring me some of these cymbals, and some of these, and two of these, and I’ll try them out and send back the ones I don’t want to use. Do you think we can do that?” After 15 minutes of hypnosis, they agree. Elliott is downstairs working on a new song, the rest of us discuss very important things while we wait for the gear to arrive. “Excuse me Tom, who’s the Nuge?” asks Paul. Okay, we’re recording now. Sam is attempting play without using headphones. This turns out to be impossible as the delay from one side of the room to the other is too long for him to keep time with the drums. After a good take we listen back. We all marvel at the sound of the room. It really has a sound. “Now if we just had an old board instead of this damn thing,” says Rob.
Abbey Road has an extensive list of floating equipment you can bring in, Rob and Tom have requested some EQs that were originally part of an old EMI board. Not only does the old stuff sound better, it looks better. Why is modern recording equipment so ugly? They have also brought in Summit mic pres, a Fairchild limiter, a Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor, an SSL compressor and some other preamps. Studio two has exclusive use of the legendary echo chamber. Located in the back of the room, it was just recently reinstated for work on the Beatles Anthology. All studios have access to the EMT reverb plates. Hey, have I mentioned there’s a pub in the basement? It’s part of the cafeteria, which offers up the usual casserole style cuisine, but the beers on tap are great. You can order a pint of Guinness, light a cigarette and take a little stroll through the halls if you want to. We decide to order out for Indian food tonight. After dinner, the band heads downstairs to work on another song. I have a stomachache, and fall asleep on the couch, imagining what the Odessey and Oracle sessions were like. (Insert Zombies dream here.) The band returns to the control room just as Rod Argent delivers a kick to my stomach because I won’t let him sit down. “How did that sound?”, asks Elliott. “Well…” It seems after spending enough time with us Paul and Chris have figured out that half of what we say is bullshit, and have started dishing it back at us with gusto. Now we’re one big happy family. Elliott and Sam lay down some vocals (U47) on the track started last night. They sound great, but Mr Smith is unhappy with the words and the song is shelved for now. He begins work on another song. He lays down acoustic first (KM56), then electric guitar through a Leslie (U47 on bottom 2 SM 57s placed at an angle of about 130 degrees [for more spin, according to Rob] on top), and drums (just make something up.) Mr Waronker isn’t here today so Elliott plays. Once again he lays down one of the coolest and weirdest drum tracks you ever heard. “Okay, Sam, think you can play bass over that?” Excellent! Sam opts to stay up in the control room to record it. We enjoy delicious frothy pints while he works away. Rob has something to show me downstairs. Tucked away at the end of the hall is an old EMI board. There’s compressors built right in to every channel. In fact, the VU meters on top show compression not signal. Chris comes over and tells us that the board no longer belongs to the studio but to one Michael Hedges who produces a lot of bands I don’t listen to. He just keeps it at Abbey Road to use when he works there. I stash a pen behind it to use next time I’m working there.
On that note, I’m disappointed to discover that out of a staff of 80 people, only eight are engineers, and all are boys. Paul assures me it’s not sexist hiring policies, just lack of applications from the girls. I think of the Spice Girls and decide he’s not taking the Mickey out of me. Come on, ladies of London, out of 7, 000 000 people. One of you must be interested in recording! Back at the ranch Elliott is laying down an organ part. The organ sound is great. “Hey, how long has that been here?…” “Really? That long? So that’s the one they used on ‘Blue Jay Way’?” The tack piano’s been here for a long time too. Penny Lane! I run down and touch them both again. We forget to eat, the cafeteria stops serving food at 8:30 and London turns into a pumpkin at 10. We all go to bed hungry.
We went to bed hungry, not necessarily sober. The bar in our hotel stays open later than the pubs so we wrapped up the night there. I wake up at 3 pm. Everyone else left at noon. When I get to the studio they have already recorded basics for another song. Joey has played drums and left by now. Sam is doing his bass part again. Let’s take a little time to get to know “The Abbey Road Kids.” Paul is only 24 years old and has been working here since age 19. He spent six months splicing tape by hand with Geoff Emerick for the Beatles Anthology. “So, were you freaking out?” “Actually no, not really.” He’s so cute. Chris is a New Zealander who moved to London in March. He landed his job at Abbey Road within three months. Not too shabby! He is a wee 23. He also informed me that the term for ice cream bar in England is “icy lolly.” Elliott is adding piano and organ. Now I forgot to tell you about studio one. It’s even bigger than two. 92 x 55 feet., and 39 feet. high. This is where they record most of the orchestras and film scores. It’s the only other studio I check out because number three gives me a weird vibe every time I walk by. Later I find out this is where Dark Side of the Moon was recorded. No wonder. I do read a little info on it though. It’s smaller than the other two, and includes a separate 19 x 12 ft live room which has no parallel surfaces and tile floors. The board is a 72 channel SSL G. It has a kitchen and shower. The Spice Girls, Morrissey, and (shudder) Phil Collins have all used this room. There is also the smaller penthouse studio, used mostly for vocals, overdubs and mixing. It has a Neve Capricorn board and is the only studio with full digital capabilities. You know, if you’re one of those people. Abbey Road also has a cassette duping suite, CD pre-mastering room, a disc cutting facility, a classical editing room, and separate digital remastering suites for pop or classical music. Whew, now that that’s out of the way, we have moved on to slide guitar.
There is a story about George Harrison’s iron fist while recording Badfinger’s ‘Day After Day.’ He insisted on doing the double slide parts at the same time, one played by him and the other by Pete Ham. Of course, this was no easy task and took a bunch of takes. Now when I hear the song I don’t know if I’m crying because it’s so beautiful, or because the idea of recording something that many times is too stressful.(Insert Badfinger nightmare here). Vocals added, the finished product is a rocker called Brand New Game. Some of you may recognize this as the song Mr Lawrence Crane and I recorded a demo of in the short film Strange Parallel. Isn’t Larry photogenic? Now adding vocals to the one from yesterday, Elliott does a lead vocal and doubles it. Moving on, he wants to try some harmonies but clarifies more than once that he’s not sure what he’s going to do. He’s just “sending out a probe” if you will. He declares after the first couple of passes that “the probe has discovered nothing” but by the next one he’s off and rolling. I lost track of how many harmonies he added but I think Brian Wilson would be jealous. While making a rough mix, Rob talks me through what he’s doing including putting some gooey shmutz on the oohs. Damn his techie talk.
Today the orchestra arrives. Another Studer has been brought in as a slave deck. We’ve got eight violins, four violas, four cellos, three basses and four French horns. They are mic’d as follows, four U67s on the violins, two on the violas, two U47s on the basses, two on the cellos, and the 4038s on the French horns. There are two M50s out front by the conductor, and very high above, a pair of KM56s. Did I mention the special love that developed for the KM56s? Aside from the acoustic guitar, they were also used as drum overheads, on a piano track or two and probably some other things I’m forgetting. A+ for versatility. The arranger/conductor arrives and goes over the sheet music with Elliott. Both satisfied, he goes downstairs, gives some brief instructions to the players and we’re ready to go. They put down a few different arrangements of the song and are done within an hour. Some of them thank Elliott for an easy day of work and head downstairs to the pub. Tom now bouces these tracks onto the original so Elliott can sing to it. The rest of the day is spent mostly on vocals and assorted bits here and there, interrupted only once so Blondie can check out the studio. I resist taking their picture and settle for waving to Clem Burke from the control room. Control tower is more like it. At above 15 ft. over the studio, you kind of feel superhuman. Just by adding some reverb to the talkback and speaking in a deep voice, you can almost live the dream. Another day finished, we head back to the hotel bar for overpriced drinks.
Last day and I’m feeling a little teary-eyed. Elliott wants to try one more song that he’s been messing around with, temporarily called ‘Honky Bach’ because of the piano style. Rob sets up the mics on the tack piano, and recording begins. Listening back, we realize the tape had started rolling before Rob made it up the stairs and shut the door. Sounds great, we move onto the harmonium. He adds some low stuff that sounds like a tuba, and some high stuff that sounds like an accordion. Sam adds a bass part and the song is now called “The Lost and Found”. Lyrics not quite finished, me move onto the mixes. Rob asks Paul if they ever use any API stuff there. He’s heard of it, but we’re in Neveland and nobody he knows seems to have actually used it. Maybe next time…
We wanted to take “the Kids” out at the end of the day but once again it’s very late. No one seems too anxious to leave our new little home, but Paul has to work early tomorrow. We’re reluctantly getting ready to leave when Chris rushes out and returns with a bottle of champagne and some gifts. The boys get the standard Abbey Road T-shirts, and I get the supercute baby tee. Which would look great if I didn’t have shoulders like Greg Louganis. We make a toast and hang out for a just a little while longer.”

Joanna Bolme

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