This is not just me mucking around in a hall of mirrors. I am actually in the world’s most renowned recording studio. Every year, Southampton Solent University hold a song competition, and bands compete for an incredible recording session. On 14th May 2012 I was privileged enough to accompany the victorious act Flatland Wolf and spend a day at Abbey Road Studios.
As the academic year of 2012 came to a close, Southampton Solent University’s online presence slowed, and production of their student-made music publication Audio Addict. Therefore, very little came of my visit to Abbey Road Studios aside from a barrage of jealous Facebook comments. So consider this a diary entry of sorts, which I think is a wonderful excuse for it not to look very professional.
A group of eighteen Southampton Solent University students, trekked to the legendary studios, after student folk quartet Flatland Wolf won an annual song competition with ‘Fire’, and won a recording session at Abbey Road. It was my duty as a journalism student to lurk in the corner and thrust a dictaphone at people when all they wanted was a break.
Studio 3 would be our base for the day, and it was an incredible sight, especially considering that it was the smallest studio on the premises. The massive (and probably unspeakably expensive) 96 channel desk squeezed into the room drove home that it certainly wasn’t an afterthought.
A very welcome addition was the very comfortable leather sofa in the corner. Perhaps it was too comfortable. With a song looping for hours in the background, sitting in a dimly lit room after a poor amount of sleep meant that it was tricky not to nod off. The hypnotic visualizer on the desk really didn’t help either.
Flatland Wolf were chosen as the most suitable to be given the opportunity to record at Abbey Road as they seem to be the band who would get the most out of the experience. Considering the following tedium of recording more and more instruments, the university’s judges were definitely correct. Once the vocals were down, the song sounded complete, yet the instruments kept coming. A piano. Then an electric guitar. Wherever it seemed before that any more instruments would be too many and too dense, it sounded even better. Still, having heard the song looped so many times, by the time we heard “OK, time to record the banjo”, we had had enough, leading to a scenic wander around studios 1 and 2.
Despite the high budget equipment surrounding us, Abbey Road Studios really have gone out of their way to stay in touch with older methods and sounds, making it the most versatile recording facility imaginable. If you want a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder, it’s there ready for you. If you want a certain instrument, it’s probably available. And if you want to be irritatingly picky, they may well have several in varying conditions. The first instrument that we saw when entering the mammoth Studio 1 was a very worn-out piano.
There will always be somebody who doesn’t want pure perfect sound, and favours the raw, organic sound of a detuned instrument that looked and sounded as though it was dragged up the stairs and dropped off the balcony. It was a surreal thought, whilst sat at the pianos (as I made an effort to press a key or pluck a string on as many instruments as I could, just to say that I did) who else may have played them.
Studio 1, while visually it reminded me a lot of my old school’s sports hall, was set up for a very large orchestra, but nobody would say what was unfolding there. It was a very poorly kept secret. When we popped back a couple of hours later, we realised what they were up to, and why everybody was being so secretive. They were recording Thomas Newman’s Skyfall soundtrack. It sounded incredible.
Studio 2 was also set up for an orchestra, albeit much smaller. This room was legendary in particular due to its association with The Beatles. Having wanted to for many years, as it was my favourite sound on my Casio keyboard as a little kid, I couldn’t resist mucking around on the celesta. I attempted to place Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and failed miserably. There were a few that Elbow had been around, linked with the creation of the BBC 2012 Olympics theme tune, ‘First Steps’. While it’s true that it was recorded at Abbey Road, I’m not sure how much truth there was in the rumours.
It is just as well that nobody was expecting a dramatic narrative of the events, as (almost) everything with completely to plan with two-times Grammy Award winning engineer Sam Okell at the reins. The biggest complication came during the recording of the vocals. The lead vocals were plowed through in just two takes, all except one line. Vocalist Jack couldn’t resist spending too many beats, improvising his final line in the chorus. It seemed that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t suppress “wake me up in summertiiiiIiiIIIIi-i-i-i-me” into “wake me up in summertime”. The situation resembled this scene from Love Actually, sans the naughty words. This took about another ten takes.
The only confrontation came during the recording of the backing vocals, as a lecturer’s advice became continually phallic, with suggestions such as “give it some bollocks” being fired left, right and centre on a regular basis. After one euphemism too many, a student intervened. “Can we please get through just one recording session without you saying ‘flaccid’?”. It comes as no surprise that this was the same lecturer to give me the final piece of advice during my degree, suggesting that everyone maintain a relatively mature image online, and that our email addresses weren’t anything along the lines of email@example.com. Out of curiosity, I couldn’t resist looking it up. It was taken.
Speaking of which, the remaining visitors, including myself, were invited to record claps, if only to have bragging rights about having recorded at Abbey Road. I caught lecturer Pete mentioning that they wouldn’t be used, and that it’s something that they do every year. I’m not convinced that anyone even pressed the record button.
Students from other media units were there, such as film production for a documentary. And excellent it is too. After all, I kept well and truly out of the way (for once), much to everybody’s relief. The closest that I get to an appearance in the documentary video at the top of the screen is a quick glimpse of my green and blue bag being loaded into the coach about a minute in. It disappoints me somewhat, and I won’t keep it a secret – I have milked a lot of self-pity out of the this experience, about how I wish I had been involved more in the performing. It was something that I sorely missed during my time at university, and this rubbed it in my face a little. I can only imagine how it must have felt for the band. Obviously, I was lucky and grateful for this visit, but there was something bittersweet about not being one of the musicians involved, considering how it was my duty only to invade everyone’s privacy.
On that signature bombshell, special thanks to the university for offering us all the opportunity to visit the studios. And the best of luck to all of the musicians on the trip. Hopefully, their visit to Abbey Road wasn’t as ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ as they may have thought! (I’ll get back in one day!)
Oh. And I got this photo taken. It was inevitable. Sorry.
(Originally written in May 2012)