When The Beatles were photographed in August 1969, striding over a zebra crossing in St. John’s Wood, London, for the cover shot of their album Abbey Road they were celebrating a building that had played an essential part in helping them take the music world by storm – and, in the process, turned Abbey Road into one of the most famous recording studios in the world.
The names of iconic recording studios – Sun, Muscle Shoals, Motown, Electric Lady, Trident, Sunset – have become almost as famous as the musicians who have created masterpieces at these venues.
Important recording studios are more than just bricks, mortar, and audio equipment to musicians. The Rolling Stones named a song in honor of the Chess Records Studio and Sonic Youth acknowledged New York’s Echo Canyon Studios by naming their 12th studio album, Murray Street, in tribute to a site that had played a key role in their success.
The first-ever recording studio
The roots of the recording studio go back to 19th-century inventors such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham, who laid the groundwork for the phonograph industry. By the time of the First World War, recording studios were appearing in major cities throughout the world, including the first OKeh Records studio, in New York, which was set up by Otto KE Heinemann in 1918.
At that time, musicians would be recorded as they played or sang in real-time, and the performance would be captured directly on master discs. The big transformation in that decade was when microphones and amplifiers could be electronically mixed to form a single signal. The music industry never looked back, and Victor, Colombia, and HMV were among the first record labels to seize on the ability to record electrically and organize an industry to produce and market the records that were now mass-selling products.
In the 30s, record companies were focused on producing and selling soundtracks to the film industry. However, the idea that recording studios could play a key part – in terms of equipment and atmosphere – in the creation of great music took hold in the 40s, with the proliferation of tape as a recording medium (when thermos plastic allowed for considerable improvement in the sound quality of recording). Companies such as RCA – who maintained studios in New York, Chicago, and Hollywood – Decca, Universal Recording Corporation, and Columbia Records began to focus on developing studio techniques. The post-war era also saw the rise of important independent studios such as Radio Recorders in Hollywood, Gotham Studios in New York, and The Barn in Nashville.
Pioneer Bill Putnam, an early architect of the modern recording studio, used techniques at his studio at Chicago’s Civic Opera that would come to define the modern record engineer, such as the use of tape and multi-tracking, creatively-deployed reverbs, and overdubbing. Hazard “Buzz” Reeves, whose work developing Cinerama for the movie industry helped advance the stereo hi-fi revolution, worked closely with Norman Granz (the founder of Verve Records) and was behind many significant jazz recordings, including Charlie Parker With Strings.
Parker’s groundbreaking album was recorded during 1949 and 1950, and spanned a time of transformation in the recording industry, which was about to see a boom in the long-playing 33 1⁄3rpm microgroove LP record, when the quality of record pressings improved and engineers understood more about where to place new condenser microphones.
The birth of Sun Studios
On January 3, 1950, Sam Phillips, a young talent scout, DJ, and radio engineer from Alabama, opened the Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue, in Tennessee, in a converted car garage. Phillips opened his doors to amateur singers, recorded them, and then tried to sell the tapes to major record labels. He was soon attracting talents such as Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, and his small studio became one of the cradles of rock and R&B. The studio that changed the world of music really was humble: a small storefront property with a front office, a 20 x 35-foot live area and a tiny control room equipped with a portable, five-input Presto mixing console and amateur Crestwood and Bell tape recorders.
Within 14 months he had struck gold, recording Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats, led by Ike Turner, singing ‘Rocket 88’, which is regarded as the first rock’n’roll record. In 1952, Phillips launched his own label, Sun Records (with the label’s iconic 11-sunbeams logo) and he would go on to discover Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Phillips was a master at getting the best out of the acoustics of the room. Much of the dynamism of the records associated with Sun could be attributed to his engineer’s ear for sound and his innovative use of slapback echo and tape delay. “He was always trying to invent sound,” says his son Jerry Phillips. “He felt the studio was his laboratory.”
The music made at Sun Records was full of experimentation, and Phillips’ echo techniques helped create hits such as ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ for Presley. In 1956, the studio was home to one of the most famous events in musical history, the “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session with Presley, Perkins, Lewis, and Cash. Phillips’ big problem, however, was that Sun had only a rudimentary distribution system and could not compete with the large national record corporations. In late 1956, RCA bought Presley’s contract from Phillips for $35,000. Sun Studio is now a popular tourist destination and still offers night-time recording sessions.
“People play better at Capitol Towers”
The year Presley left Sun also saw a significant advance in studio design, when Capitol Records completed the Capitol Tower, a 13-story building that is one of the most iconic buildings in Los Angeles. Designed by Louis Naidorf, the tower resembles a stack of records and the 90-foot spire blinked “Hollywood” in Morse code at night. Inside the building, Michael Rettinger pioneered state-of-the-art acoustic techniques that were used on the first record made there, Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color. Over the next decade, hit songs from hundreds of musicians, including Bobbie Gentry, Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole, Glen Campbell, and The Kingston Trio, were recorded at the Hollywood studio.
Capitol Tower was also renowned for its “echo chambers”, which are part of an underground concrete bunker designed by legendary guitarist and sound engineer Les Paul to get a better reverb sound. The chambers could provide reverb for up to five seconds and the technique was a key factor in creating the sound of The Beach Boys’ classic “Good Vibrations.” As producer Phil Ramone used to say, “People play better at Capitol Towers.”
Capitol even issued a promotional film in 1958, narrated by Tennessee Ernie Ford, which saluted the movable sound panels in the building’s three recording studios, with wood on one side and fiberglass on the other, while also explaining that the floors were a blend of concrete and cork to deaden the possibility of interference.
The recording studio had come of age. As L.A. native and singer Beck later said: “This tower, a stack of vinyl on the Hollywood skyline, represents a place between art and commerce, jazz and rock’n’roll; between a golden age, urban decay, and rebirth.”
In 1959, when Capitol was recording two more Sinatra albums, a cathedral of jazz opened across on the eastern seaboard with Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. This beautiful acoustic setting, with a 40-foot-high cedar ceiling, held up by arches of laminated Douglas fir, was where artists such as Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson and Antônio Carlos Jobim made some of their finest work for Blue Note Records.
Van Gelder was a remarkable recording engineer, who had learned his trade recording stars such as Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey. To Van Gelder, the atmosphere at the studio was essential to the music which resulted. He said: “I built the studio, I created the environment in which they play, I selected, installed, and operate the equipment. An analogy might be, someone wanted to put a man on the moon, but it was an engineer who got him there. My goal is to make the musicians sound the way they want to be heard.”
WMGM’s Fine Sound Studios was another place where great jazz was made in the 50s for Granz, including albums for Mercury/EmArcy by luminaries such as Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Johnny Hodges, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Roy Eldridge, and Dinah Washington. The groundbreaking Miles Davis/Gil Evans/Gerry Mulligan sessions that were eventually collected as Birth Of The Cool was also recorded there.
Old churches, because of their superb acoustics, often worked well as revamped recording studios. The Columbia Records 30th Street Studio, for example, was a converted Armenian church with a ceiling more than 100 feet high. The tall ceiling of a converted church also contributed to the fine sound at Pythian Temple, a former meeting place for the Knights Of Pythias, which was rented out to Decca Records in the early 40s, and where Louis Jordan, Billie Holiday, and Buddy Holly cut records, and Bill Haley And His Comets laid down ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock)’.
One of the most successful of all recording studios was RCA Studio B, which opened in Nashville in 1957. The studio, which recorded The Everly Brothers and Presley, became known for producing the iconic “Nashville Sound”, a style known for its particular use of background vocals and strings. The studio recorded more than 35,000 songs, of which more than 1,000 went on to become Billboard hits.
In this period in the late 50s, the easing of import restrictions also meant that burgeoning British recording companies, such as Pye and Phillips, were making their mark in the UK as they introduced innovations to studios such as multi-track recording.
Dawn of a new era: the studio as instrument
In simple terms, the history of recording studios can be roughly divided into two time periods: before and after the 60s. During the remarkably creative period from 1965 to 1967, the studio changed from being simply a place of work for musicians, engineers, and producers, to becoming an artistic hub. The role of the producer was transformed during another period when technology was a significant agent of change. Multi-tracking sparked greater experimentation in the studio: eight-track recording became commonplace in the 60s, and 8-track recording was introduced in the UK., initially by Trident Studios, in 1969. Forty years on, 32-track digital recorders for simultaneous mixing are commonplace.
Trident, based in Soho, London, was the first UK studio to use the Dolby noise reduction system. Seminal albums made at Norman Sheffield’s studio included James Taylor’s eponymous debut album (1968) and The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed (1969). Along with Norman, his brother Barry Sheffield also helped to construct the studios and was responsible for engineering some of the studio’s early work. In the 70s, Trident Studios was the home of Queen’s first four albums as well as David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, T.Rex’s Electric Warrior, and Lou Reed’s Transformer.
Sheffield wanted a relaxed vibe (he banned engineers from wearing the white lab coats they wore at some recording studios) and he knew the value of great musical instruments. The famous “Trident Piano” was a handmade 19th-century Bechstein grand piano which has been described as “the best rock’n’roll piano ever”. Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ is just one of the seminal songs played on that piano.
Abbey Road: home of The Beatles
The UK has been home to dozens of superb recording studios, including Sarm West in Notting Hill (Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Band Aid); Britannia Row in Islington (Pink Floyd, Squeeze, Joy Division) and Olympic Studios in Barnes (The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix). However, none can match the historical significance of Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood.
Paul McCartney described Abbey Road, formerly EMI Studios, as “the best studio in the world”, saying that it has “depth and tradition”. The building was first used for music when it was acquired by the Gramophone Company in 1931. Though The Beatles are synonymous with Abbey Road, it is also the recording site of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, Duran Duran’s eponymous debut album and, in recent times, music from Radiohead, Lady Gaga, James Blake, OneRepublic, and Ed Sheeran.
The Beatles went there for their first recording test with George Martin in June 1962, and they were bowled over by the facilities. The three studios had high ceilings and tremendous acoustics (the main hall was big enough to accommodate an orchestra) and the Fab Four enjoyed fooling around in the storage room, which housed hundreds of percussion instruments.
Abbey Road had character, from the large Indian rugs on the hardwood floors (to cope with problems from reflected sound) to the sweeping wooden staircase. For the song “Yellow Submarine,” producer Geoff Emerick put John Lennon and co into one of the echo chambers to make them sound like they were in a submarine. The chamber, which was only three feet high, with water dripping off the walls, produced the perfect effect.
The Beatles continually broke new ground with their innovative use of feedback, microphone techniques and backwards recording . One of the keys to their success was Abbey Road’s talented sound engineers, who helped them realize their musical visions and gave them the necessary modified equipment to do so. The control room at the top of the stairs was described by McCartney as “where the grown-ups lived”.
This was also an era when bands were given time to make albums at a relaxed pace. Since EMI owned the recording studios, The Beatles were sometimes afforded months to record their songs. An estimated 700 hours of work went into recording Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band between November 1966 and April 1967. Production costs were £25,000 – around half a million pounds today.
The idea that you would carry on recording until an album was finished (instead of hiring a studio for a few days) was a revolutionary concept and helped, said producer Martin, to redefine “the studio as an instrument”. As Martin said, “When I first came into the business, the ideal for any recording engineer in the studio was to make the most lifelike sounds he could possibly do, to make a photograph that was absolutely accurate. Well, the studio changed all that… because instead of taking a great photograph, you could start painting a picture. By overdubbing, by different kind of speeds… you are painting with sound.”
British musicians were, however, still paying attention to recording studios in the US. McCartney frequently asked Abbey Road executives to produce “an American sound”, insisting that producers at Motown got a richer bass sound than studios in Britain.
Berry Gordy could never be said to have lacked confidence. In 1959, he put up a sign that read “Hitsville USA” on his house when he turned a former photographer’s office and garage into a studio. Gordy’s record label, Motown, was a stunning success and, within seven years, the studio occupied seven additional neighboring houses in West Grand Boulevard, Detroit.
Gordy had a template for success. Each morning, Motown would hold a “quality control” meeting – where honest opinion was valued – to decide what to record over a 22-hour day. Initially, their equipment was basic. They had three tracks. One was used for drums and bass; the second for other instruments; and the third for the vocalists. The formula was a triumph, however, and hit after hit followed for artists such as The Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. Motown quickly became the most successful African-American business in the music world.
Chess Records and the sound of the electric blues
Like Sun in Memphis and Motown in Detroit, Chess Records was run out of small premises. Chess started out as small recording studios attached to offices and facilities for distribution. Chess had several different locations in Chicago, but the most important was 2120 South Michigan Avenue, which was immortalized in a song by The Rolling Stones (it is now the home of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation).
In June 1964, the Stones interrupted their US tour to visit the studio responsible for so many memorable records by Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Etta James. Though the atmosphere was electric and the equipment excellent, the Stones believed that the big difference was in the talented producers and engineers, such as Ron Malo. “I don’t think anyone anywhere could record this music as effectively as Chess did in Chicago,” said drummer Charlie Watts. “Their methods were completely different.”
The Rolling Stones, incidentally, left their own mark on the history of recording, with their Mobile Studio. Instigated in the late 60s by Mick Jagger, the studio on wheels (a DAF truck) had control with the latest 16-track technology. As well as recording some of Exile On Main St, it was used for other memorable songs, including Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’ and the live recording of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” The Stones were following in the tracks OKeh Records, who sent mobile recording trucks to US cities such as Detroit and New Orleans in the 20s.
Though many of the most famous recording studios are in the US and UK, there have been important ones around the world – from Canada’s Studio 2 to Studio 301 in Australia. Few studios, however, can match the status of Germany’s Hansa Tonstudio, which can rightfully claim to be a site of historical music importance.
When Britain’s athletes walked out for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, they did so to David Bowie’s ‘“Heroes”’, a song written and recorded in 1977 in West Berlin’s Hansa Tonstudio, which overlooked the Berlin Wall and its watchtowers. This desolate wasteland setting sparked a creative resurgence in Bowie, who had moved to Germany to cope with a cocaine addiction and a collapsing marriage. “It was literally like being reborn,” he admitted later.
The complex, first used as recording studios by record label Ariola in the 60s, was bought by brothers Peter and Thomas Meisel. In 1976, their Meisel Music Publishers bought the property and fitted it with recording equipment. The Meistersaal (main hall), which had hosted classical music concerts in the 20s and later served as a social club for the Nazi SS, was turned into Studio 2, and bomb-damaged rooms were renovated into smaller modern recording studios.
Over the next 20 years, the roll call of celebrated albums made at Hansa – utilizing the eerily dark sound quality – afforded the studio near-legendary status. Rock stars from around the world flocked to Berlin to make albums, including Bowie, Iggy Pop, and R.E.M.. Boney M – for the label Hansa Records – cut million-selling hits such as “Rivers Of Babylon” and “Brown Girl In The Ring” and U2 recorded their acclaimed album Achtung Baby there.
Mark Ellis, known by his pseudonym Flood, was originally Hansa’s sound engineer before working closely with U2. The building, with its spacious rooms and the herringbone flooring of the beautiful early 20th-century ballroom, was hailed by Flood as being “as much an instrument as any guitar, drum or synthesizer”. Depeche Mode’s producer Gareth Jones recalls running cables up and down the stairs between studios to get interesting reverbs and delays for the sound on the album Black Celebration. “We were throwing beats around the whole building in a really fun, very noisy way,” Jones recalled.
Other seminal albums recorded at Hansa include Tinderbox, by Siouxsie And The Banshees, but nothing quite matches Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – which was recorded there between 1977 and 1979.
There was something about the gloomy outcast setting that inspired Bowie. His producer Tony Visconti recalled the impact of making music in the shadow of a soldier’s look-out: “Every afternoon I’d sit down at that mixing desk and see three Russian Red Guards looking at us with binoculars, with their Sten guns over their shoulders, and the barbed wire, and I knew that there were mines buried by that Berlin Wall. That atmosphere was so provocative.”
The strange setting led to a fortuitous moment of inspiration. As Robert Fripp’s guitar riffs vibrated through the building, Bowie was struggling to find lyrics for the song ‘“Heroes.”’ Then, peering through the window, he spied the famous kiss “by the wall” between Visconti and one of the backing singers, and the words for his song flowed.
By the time Bowie returned to Hansa in 1982, to record his EP Baal, the studio had begun a period of investment in new technology and the SSL 4000E console desk, in eye-catching “Hansa blue”, cost around £2.5 million in today’s money. It is considered one of the best pieces of recording equipment ever made.
In the 80s, Nick Cave, Marillion, and The Psychedelic Furs also flocked to Hansa, and even in the 21st Century, it has remained a destination studio for leading artists such as KT Tunstall and Manic Street Preachers.
Southern soul at Muscle Shoals
Brian Eno, who worked with Bowie at Hansa, once said that “if you had a sign above every studio door saying ‘This Studio Is A Musical Instrument’, it would make such a different approach to recording.” That ethos was as true of Hansa as it was of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, which was originally started by the four members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (known as The Swampers) after leaving FAME Studios.
The unmistakable sound The Swampers took with them to the new studio drew in some of the world’s top musicians, from Paul Simon and The Rolling Stones to Willie Nelson, even though the facilities at the concrete block building – previously a coffin showroom – were rudimentary. But it was the sound that counted, as it was in Studio One (in Kingston, Jamaica), which also became renowned for its resident reggae musicians.
The sites of recording studios often have rich histories. A&M Records’ studio in Hollywood – where The Flying Burrito Brothers, Carpenters, and Joni Mitchell recorded in the 60s and 70s – had first been a film studio built by comedian Charlie Chaplin in 1917.
Nevertheless, memorable music can be made in a place without a glamorous past. Surrey Sound Studio, in sleepy Leatherhead – where, in the late 70s and early 80s, The Police recorded their first three albums – was a small converted village hall. It is now a sports goods shop.
In the 70s, the Minneapolis recording studio Sound 80 attracted some of the finest musicians of the age, including Bob Dylan (Blood On The Tracks), Cat Stevens, Prince, and Dave Brubeck. In 1978, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra made one of the first digital recordings to be released commercially. The music was captured on a prototype digital recorder and engineers at Sound 80 were pleased with the way the new technology eliminated some of the “flutter” of analog recordings. Sound 80 studio is now home to Orfield Labs, a research facility that contains an anechoic chamber, named by The Guinness World Records as “the quietest place on Earth”.
The widespread use of multi-track technology in the modern era meant that musicians often spent long spells in recording studios. As a result, many residential studios were established, often away from cities. The Rockfield Recording Studio in Monmouth, Wales, founded in 1965, is reportedly the world’s oldest residential studio and is where Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was cut.
Rockfield’s residential properties were built out of dilapidated farm buildings, but musicians loved the solid stone studios and artists as diverse as Dave Edmunds, Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Carlene Carter, Adam And The Ants, The Pogues and Oasis (for “Wonderwall”) have used the facilities. In the 90s, Rockfield was the studio of choice for Coldplay, who liked its isolation. Island Sound Studios, in Honolulu, may not be able to boast the delights of Monmouth’s historic River Monnow, but Dr. Dre and Kanye West are among the musicians who have gone there for a recording studio which is just five minutes from the snorkeling at the picturesque Hanauma Bay.
The history of popular music is filled with iconic recording studios – from Stax Studios to Gold Star Recording Studios (where Phil Spector constructed his “Wall Of Sound”); from Sunset Sound Recorders, in Los Angeles, to Columbia Studios in New York (where Bob Dylan cut his first album); from Headley Grange to Electric Lady Studios (created by Jimi Hendrix just weeks before his premature death, and which is still in use). It is no wonder so many have been turned into museums and visitor centers.
Recording studios in the digital age
The music world of today would probably be unimaginable to the executives of OKeh Records a century ago. But what recording studios have in common now, from the smallest independent outfits to the $100 million luxury BOP Studios in South Africa, is that they have been radically transformed by software.
To survive in the digital age requires the ability to adapt. Universal Music artists have access to modern studios in London, which are equipped with the latest music-making tools, such as Pro Tools HD, Native 12, Logic Pro X, Neuman U87, and Avalon 737 Valve Vocal Chain – as well as a good old-fashioned upright acoustic piano. Among the musicians who have worked in Universal’s studios in the past are Adele, Kylie Minogue, and Lisa Marie Presley.
As recording budgets have shrunk and computers and audio software have become cheaper, smaller, and more effective, some musicians have gone DIY and created recording studios in their own homes. Niall McMonagle, the studio manager of Ireland’s celebrated Windmill Lane Recording Studios, said: “On your laptop, you can have more power than The Beatles or Queen ever had recording in Abbey Road or wherever, and that raises the standard.”
That impulse to make a record is nothing new, of course. In the 50s, thousands of people would go into small telephone-like booths in shops to use the Voice-O-Graph system to record their voices directly on to a phonograph disc.
The key difference with the best recording studios is that they had their own sound and so became an indispensable part of the process of creating marvelous music. And the restrictions of analog led to all sorts of wild creativity. Some of the jazz recorded in the 50s was among the best-recorded music in history. Howard Massey, engineer, and author of The Great British Recording Studios, says, “People today don’t feel the need to go into a professional studio. That’s a bit misguided. There are few artists in history who’ve had the ability to produce themselves well and view their work objectively.”