NEW YORK, NY—“Why would an American be writing a book about the British recording studios of the 1960s and 1970s?” asks Howard Massey in the preface to his latest book. As Massey explained at his presentation during the 2015 AES Convention in New York, “The short answer is because I was asked.”
Howard Massey has captured the quickly fading history of 36 classic British recording studios—only three of which are still open today. Massey was the ideal choice to write The Great British Recording Studios; indeed, he was handpicked for the venture. “Five years ago, I met with Malcolm Atkin, the chair of the APRS in England, which is roughly the equivalent of SPARS, a trade organization of recording studios. Malcolm said, ‘I have an idea for a book and I’d like you to write it.’”
And who better to write the book than Massey, who moved to England in the 1970s as a musician and songwriter with a publishing deal. He found himself, in 1979, working at Pathway in North London, where his first session was a mix that went into the U.K. Top 20 singles chart. From there, he went on to work at other studios around town, including a long stint at Trident, and even sat in on a few mastering sessions at Abbey Road. He returned to the U.S. in the 1980s.
The Great British Recording Studios is described by Hal Leonard Books as the first comprehensive account of that country’s recording facilities ever published, and rightly so. As Massey explained during his AES presentation, “I interviewed over 300 people for this book. It covers three dozen studios; sadly, only three of them are still in business today. There are over 100 photos, many never before published, supplemented with over 100 anecdotal stories from the studios—behind-the-scenes peeks at what was going on.”
There is plenty of technical information for those interested in the studio equipment that drove what became known as the British Invasion beginning in the mid-1960s. “There’s information like specific room dimensions, acoustic treatments, key personnel, key technical innovations, detailed equipment listings—mixing boards, tape recorders, monitors, microphones, outboard gear—and a selective discography for each of the 36 studios,” he said.
But before the book launches into details of the studios, from EMI’s Abbey Road facilities, opened in 1931, through the studios built by the other three record labels—Decca, Philips and Pye—beginning six years later, and on to the major independents and other important studios, Massey puts forth his thesis. Why did a “British sound,” as distinct from an “American sound,” evolve during that crucial time period? “The reasons may be as much sociological as they are technical,” he said.
For a start, the two countries had very different popular music traditions. Jazz, blues and rock ’n’ roll started as uniquely American forms. Britain had its own exclusive genres, such as skiffle, a tamer version of rock ’n’ roll, and the West Indies-influenced ska, which predated reggae’s popularity in the country.
There was much less cross-pollination of ideas back then, Massey noted in his presentation. “Flying was very expensive. As a result, engineers didn’t travel like they do today.”
Further, he said, “One of the most fascinating things that I learned in the course of doing this book is that not only were British engineers largely unaware of American recording techniques, they were largely unaware of the techniques being used by the other British engineers. You worked in a studio for life. It wasn’t until the mid-’60s that people like Glyn Johns started becoming independent engineers and moving from studio to studio.”
It took a long time for Britain to recover from World War II, and British studios and musicians were unable to afford American-made equipment, instead buying European products. “Until the mid-1960s, almost every British studio used mixing boards custom-built by their own maintenance engineers. American studios tended to have Ampex and Scully tape machines; British studios tended to have EMI and Studer machines,” explained Massey.
Another technical factor was acoustic design. “Up until the early 1970s, British studios were never custom-built; they were always constructed into existing buildings, often centuries old, which presented complex acoustic challenges. Also, until 1973, when Tom Hidley redesigned Decca Studio 1, they were designed by British acousticians and architects,” said Massey.
America was producing stereo mixes in the 1950s but that was not common in England until the mid-to late-60s, and often an afterthought to the mono mixes. American studios adopted 8-then 16-and 24-track recorders well before British studios.
As a result of these and other factors, British engineers and their clients had to innovate—and innovate they did. As Massey states in the book, the “British sound” was down to the right people in the right place at the right time with the right equipment to hand. The result was a string of British artists—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, The Who—that stormed across the ocean and up the American charts, and helped drive both music and the recording process in new directions.