Eric Felten: Abbey Road and the Day Studio Music Died

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Rumors abound that money-hemorrhaging music behemoth EMI may sell Abbey Road Studios, the sanctum sanctorum where the Beatles recorded most of their albums. Britain's National Trust is entertaining the idea of bidding on it, aiming to add the famed recording studio to its stable of historic castles and country houses. If that happens, will Abbey Road still function as a recording studio, or will it become a rope-lined destination for tourists to traipse through in their stations of Beatles veneration?...

Particular studios have been crucial in defining the sounds of whole eras. Capitol Studios in Hollywood gave the Sinatra years their sonic signature. What would Elvis's essential recordings have sounded like without the cobbled-together peculiarities of the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn.? The airiness of classic '50s jazz owed much to the acoustic properties of an old Armenian church in Manhattan converted by Columbia Records into its 30th Street Studio.

Miles Davis's masterpiece, "Kind of Blue," was recorded at 30th Street, and so too, just a couple of months later, was Dave Brubeck's album "Time Out." David Simons, in his book "Studio Stories," suggests that the success of those two records owed something to how they sounded, something that wasn't just a function of the quality of the recording equipment. There was the sympathetic resonance of the studio's unvarnished wood floor and the distant reverberations reflected by its towering ecclesiastic architecture: "To hear 30th Street is to hear drummer Joe Morello's snare and kick-drum shots echoing off the 100-foot ceiling during the percussion break in Dave Brubeck's great 'Take Five.'"

Similarly, it takes only a few seconds to recognize a classic Motown recording. Much of that is due to the inventive, custom electronics that Berry Gordy Jr. had made for his studio. But it is also thanks to the funky fidelity unique to "the pit," a concrete-block room where most of the label's hits were recorded. "The secret of the so-called 'Motown Sound' was room identity," Hank Cosby once told an interviewer. A producer, songwriter and saxophonist for the label in its heyday, Cosby said: "The drums sat in the same place for years; nothing was ever disturbed. If you moved any of the instruments a couple of feet in either direction it would have changed the sound completely."...

Then there is Abbey Road. Let's hope it remains more than just a museum piece, more than a memento mori of how studios once shaped the sound of great recordings.

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