1929 — 1939
The early years
EMI Studios — as it was then known — opened its doors for business on 12th November, 1931. Bought by The Gramophone Company for £16,500 in 1929, the nine-bedroom Georgian mansion in the heart of St. John's Wood — London's first garden suburb — had been transformed into the world's first custom-built recording studio.
Demand for a bespoke recording studio featuring the latest in recording technology had been established by Trevor Osmond Williams, manager of The Gramophone Company's International Artistes and Technical Recording departments. As with any new idea, the plans were not welcomed across the board. Objectors included Fred Gaisberg, who was among those initially skeptical about the company's change in ethos to require the artists to come to them, rather than the other way round.
The grand unveiling
Whatever doubts lingered about the Studios' viability were put to rest by the time of its inaugural performing session. Selected for the honour was Sir Edward Elgar, the pre-eminent English composer of his day who was signed to His Master's Voice. This choice reflected both the allure of EMI's new venture and the musical genres that dominated recorded music during that era. Elgar, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, marked the occasion with a crowd-pleasing rendition of his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, Opus 39 — better known as Land of Hope and Glory. Also recorded was his dry instruction to the orchestra to "play this tune as though you've never heard it before". Captured on film, it remains the best-known and perhaps only sound film recording of Elgar. In the capacity audience of Studio 1 sat prominent figures such as George Bernard Shaw, demonstrating the significance of the event.
Elgar's relationship with the Studios endured as he went on to make many recordings there. Among the soloists who recorded with Elgar was the prodigiously talented violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who would later enjoy a second career as a successful conductor and recorded in both capacities at the Studio.
"With the Elgar concerto, my recordings really centred on Abbey Road," Menuhin told BBC Omnibus in 1988. "It was the largest orchestra I'd ever played with as a soloist. It was a modern orchestra with all the paraphernalia that Beethoven would never have used, not even Brahms, and that was the great experience of that whole period. Preparing the concerto [that way] was Fred Gaisberg's suggestion. Elgar rather enjoyed it."
Menuhin had equally fond memories of his mentor. "I was amazed by this man who evoked so much love and response from the musicians without apparently bothering himself at all," he admitted. "I don't think he strained or sweated or exhorted or admonished — none of that. It all happened inside."
During this early era at Abbey Road, sessions were dominated by classical artists who recorded in blocks of three hours. Artists and conductors were acutely aware both of the cost of these sessions and of the opportunity they presented to create a permanent record of their endeavours.
Menuhin's abiding memories of this period appear dominated by the drive to present recorded music that was rich and evocative. "Recording was made with the romantic vision and quality of searching for expression and beauty of sound," he says, offering an appraisal of early recording techniques. "I think recordings have somewhat changed now in that they search for clarity and precision."
The man who made an indelible contribution to the art of sound recording was Alan Dower Blumlein. A gifted engineer and classical music lover, Blumlein was recruited in 1929 to the research department at Columbia, which subsequently became EMI's Central Research Laboratories based in Hayes, Middlesex. Blumlein was hired by Isaac Shoenberg, snared by the offer of a generous research budget to develop new technologies as part of EMI's sprawling remit of the time — which would later include television and several other important inventions, such as radar and the CAT scanner.
The first of many watermark achievements by Blumlein was to invent the moving-coil disc cutting head. This advance saved his employers money by eliminating significant royalties to the patent-holder — the Western Electric Corporation — of the previous method, which involved cutting discs with a moving iron. As a bonus, Blumlein's method also greatly improved the quality of the cut discs. Prior to joining Columbia, Blumlein had worked in the telecommunications branch of Western Electric. Once had helped improve their technology; now he quickly surpassed it.
Blumlein's binaural breakthrough
What followed in 1931 was nothing short of a revelation. After an evening at the cinema, Blumlein found it incongruous that a character on one side of the frame should have their voice projected from a mono speaker on the other side of the screen. He was inspired to create binaural sound. To use its modern term, he created stereo recording. Two-channel audio had existed in the past — French mechanical engineer Clément Ader put it to limited use in the fields of telecommunications and short-distance broadcasts towards the end of the nineteenth century. Blumlein, at the vanguard of a company that could implement it, saw the possibilities of binaural sound to revolutionize the recorded music business. Blumlein's binaural technology created a uniform sound field, rather than having playback from two spaced loudspeakers with a 'hole in the middle' effect.
Experiments using Blumlein's new technology began in 1931, when his creation was patented. The first binaural discs were also cut during that year. The two walls of the record's groove were cut at right angles in order to carry the two audio channels. It would take another quarter of a century for this to become standard for the recording industry, partly due to the reluctance of consumers to upgrade their listening devises. Shellac was also a difficult material and it wasn't until vinyl discs emerged in the 1950s that the right medium arrived.
Blumlein's station at Hayes provided a base from which more of his eventual 128 patents would blossom. After inventing a new style of cutting disc and then binaural sound, his work alongside colleague Herbert Holman in the early 1930s led to the creation of the moving-coil microphone, which was used in EMI recording studios and by the BBC at Alexandra Palace. Like many vintage microphones, this technology survives and some models are still in use to this day.
Excerpted from Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World by Alistair Lawrence. Copyright 2012 by Alistair Lawrence. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.