composing

TOM HEDDEN MUSIC, inc.

consulting

Abbey Road Studios

studio2

St John’s Wood, London, England

 

Probably best to start with the biggest name on the list. I worked at Abbey Road on three different projects, all recording orchestra or strings. Sometimes I conducted but I was always producing or co-producing. Most of my experience was in Studio 2, the famous room where the Beatles (and pretty much everyone else) recorded. Oddly, this was not by choice. We were usually trying to get into Studio 1, a vast space, ideally suited for recording large, acoustic ensembles. In the late ‘90s, Studio 1 was perhaps the most in-demand studio in Europe for film scoring, perhaps the whole world (at least outside of LA). The few recordings I have done in Studio 1 do sound amazing but we were often too late with our booking to get in and were sent across the hall to Studio 2. Not such a terrible fate, being sent to off work in the room where George Martin and Alan Parsons worked their magic. The move to Studio 2 also fit into our plans for trying a technique conceived by one of my collaborators. The plan was to break the orchestra into its component sections and record them individually, giving us a great deal more control in the mixing process. In the end, it worked out all around.

 

The best thing about Abbey Road is reverence for the past. Why not? They pretty much had it right from the earliest days of recording (even before World War 2) and made changes only when they were clear improvements. This extends to painting the walls… This grandest of the grand monument to recording was not immune to the wail and howl of the economic banshee but in 2010 the British Government protected the building with a designation as a heritage site preventing major alternations. In effect, codifying the historical reverence that was always such an important aspect of the studio’s culture. So Abbey Road, which was almost turned into condos, is still working and making recordings with some of the best tools ever assembled in one place. I don’t believe I’m alone in saying Abbey Road has one of the best collections of vintage mics in the world.

 

Another collaborator of mine with a good deal of time spent wandering the halls of Abbey Road at all hours of the day and night tells me, from personal experience, that the building is haunted. I’m not sure about that but there are definitely spirits in Studio 2. How could there not be!?!? The piano from “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” still sits against the wall, meticulously kept in that tuning (or that degree of out-of-tune). The off-white pegboard walls have been the backdrop to some of the most iconic images of musicians working their craft, from Mick Jagger and Pink Floyd to Nerina Pallot. This tiny little piece of the universe, about 40’ x 60’, is ground zero for some of the greatest recordings ever made. If you don’t know this, you probably stopped reading already.

 

The control room is up a flight of stairs from the recording room. The stairs are long enough that by the end of a session of conducting, they give you good reason to listen to playbacks in your headphones. Conducting is a great leg workout… I do like to sit in the studio when I’m producing orchestral music as this allows me to hear the whole, organic sound with no electronic filter. It also affords me the thrill of hearing a small army of very gifted musicians perform a piece of my music. However, those stairs will keep a producer firmly seated in the control room and a conductor standing at the podium. I’ve even seen a beautiful, finely-detailed, orchestral score thrown across the studio and dashed against a wall by the orchestrator who hand-taped it together and I blame the exhaustion brought about by too many trips up and down those stairs for the act.

 

Conducting in London is like driving a Ferrari. I have never had the pleasure of driving a Ferrari and those are my friend’s words but the sentiment is not lost on me. One of the main reasons people travel to London to make music is for the players. I did a session with six horn players at the same time another film was recording across the hall with ten more and this was during a French horn convention in northern England. A lesser city would have broken but London provided more than enough talent to go around. Even this is only one part of the draw, though. For string players, the actual instrument is also a big part of the equation and London’s string players have the best instruments. Like in all things, there is the elite of the elite and in a room of 50 or 60 string players there’s one instrument that is the apex, the most rare, the most valuable, the most revered.

 

I was conducting. We had just finished a take and I was giving notes to a few players, the room was relaxed, we were moving along well. A few assistants were moving among the players adjusting mics for the engineer. Every musician who has spent any time in a studio knows the little war you have with your headphones throughout a session. They are designed to be comfortable but after hours of wear they become totally annoying, kind of like a car seat on a long drive. The cord is a pain, the fit is wrong, they hurt your ear where the thinner padding is hitting your particular anatomy… So you develop strategies of moving them around your head between takes, trying to fight the wear spots. Some people put them on top of their heads or around their necks. Some people remove them and put them in their lap or on their music stands. Different instruments create different strategies for finding a comfortable, “at-ease” position for the cans. Cellists seem to prefer the top of the head move, probably because they have no lap when holding their precious instruments. For those of you who do not know the orchestra well, two simple facts: the more experienced, “senior” players sit toward the front and the cellos are to the conductor’s right. This means that the best cellists are immediately at the conductor’s right hand. On this day, they were also playing the two most valuable instruments in the room. As I was looking out over the group, my eye just caught sight of the headphones slipping forward and falling off the brow of the man playing the MOST VALUABLE INSTRUMENT in the room! With an unceremonious plop they slid from his forehead and crashed down the fingerboard, banged the face of the cello and squarely caught the bridge of this one-of-a-kind masterpiece, finally dropping to the floor. I had learned earlier that day that this particular cello had been recently appraised at over four million pounds. All the air was sucked out of the room. Sixty people who had dedicated their lives to making these complex and ancient artworks, perhaps the very zenith of western woodworking, literally sing, drew in a horrified, unison breath. My knees went weak; an assistant who was about five feet from this tragic little avalanche of plastic totally went white as all the blood drained from his face. A violinist, who was an experienced conductor himself and a man to whom I will forever be indebted, screamed “OH MY GOD! (very long pause) Are those headphones okay?”