The world-famous zebra crossing outside the equally world-famous Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, north London, was thronging with tourists as usual, local motorists waiting with an air of polite resignation as people strode across the road, stopping halfway to pose for their friend standing on the pavement holding a camera. The gateposts outside the studio were scrawled with graffiti as usual, a daily-evolving testament to the thousands of fans of the many bands who have recorded some of their most inspired work within these famous studios. Every now and then, the gateposts are repainted, and the writing on the wall begins again.
I was at Abbey Road Studios to meet producer and engineer Mark Hornsby, who had flown over from Nashville, Tennessee to work with Scottish folk rock ceilidh band Gallus for a two day recording session in Studio Two, the cavernous room in which The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Oasis put together some of their most famous recordings. Today, Pro Tools and Sibelius were playing a role in bringing another recording to life within this hallowed hall.
As I arrived at the studios, the boys from Gallus were just finishing their second morning in Studio Two. Studio assistant Paul ushered me into the warmth of its comfy control room, where the band were having a quick debrief before heading off to the cafeteria for lunch. After greeting Mark Haining, Gallus’s guitarist, and Mark McCullagh, the band’s bass player, Mark opened the control room door onto the staircase that leads down into the main body of the studio.
Mark walked and talked me around the famous studio, pointing out the carpet that covered the half of the floor on which the band’s instruments were set up, the floor adorned with the Scottish saltire and other flags, the sound treatment wall coverings, the famous upright piano, the Steinway Model D. Simply standing in the room was something quite exceptional, and as Mark clicked his fingers to demonstrate the room’s unique acoustic, with a natural reverb of over a second, I confess to being excited just to be there.
Awed as I may have been, I couldn’t help but notice that the lead sheets and chord charts that the band were playing from (including the opening chord of one number as being “Crash Bang Wallop / E”) were produced in Sibelius, and of course the recording system used in the control room is a Pro Tools HD rig. Mark, a certified Pro Tools expert who teaches Pro Tools in institutions around the US, was happy enough today to let somebody else drive the rig for him: he said he considered it a luxury to have such a competent studio assistant for these sessions, allowing him to focus with single-minded purpose on hearing what the band were actually playing, rather than diverting even a small amount of attention to operating Pro Tools.
After a quick bite of lunch with Mark and the band, we returned to Studio Two’s control room, and while drummer Graham Watson was adjusting his drums, Mark asked him to put down a groove so that I could hear the room’s acoustic from inside the studio itself. Stepping out onto the studio’s staircase, Graham’s playing came across surprisingly loud, the sound nevertheless very alive and very clear. Mark explained his mic setup, showing me his favourite kick drum mic (a Shure Beta, if memory serves), and how he had not only each drum miked separately, but also the same mic setup used by The Beatles (one mic overhead, one on the snare, and one out in front of the kit). Mark had also placed a pair of mics way in the back of the room to pick up the overall acoustic.
Gallus’s front man is fiddle player Aidan Broadbridge, and in these sessions he was playing both electric and acoustic fiddle. Mark was capturing both the raw fiddle sound and the sound coming through the amp, so that he can choose whether to use what was recorded in the room or add his own amp sound in the box via a plug-in later on.
Aidan, Graham and Mark the bassist retired to the control room, while Mark the guitarist punched in a number of extra takes of his solo for a Bluesy number the band had recorded in the morning session. It was fascinating to watch how Mark Hornsby was able to draw the performance he wanted out of Mark take after take, with a few simple words describing where to intensify the solo and where to leave gaps, and when a particularly stratospheric note wasn’t coming off quite right after a couple of takes, Aidan and Mark deftly stepped in to point Mark in another direction. Mark’s fingers fairly flew over the fretboard of his guitar, and take after take his playing sounded absolutely great to me. Graham, in jest, said that it sounded like he had got his fingers caught between the strings. “How long have you been working on that joke?”, asked Aidan with a laugh. “Two years,” replied Graham. “We’ve always abused each other,” confided Mark the bassist to me, “It started this way, so it doesn’t matter if it ends this way.” Although all four members of the band give as good as they get, there’s no doubt that all the ribbing is good natured, and they all share a great camaraderie.
After nailing the solo, Mark recorded a crash chord for the end of one of the tracks. Again it was fascinating to see how Mark (Hornsby) immediately identified the way to get the sound he wanted, suggesting to Mark (Haining) that he start kneeling on the ground and then turn his guitar towards the amp to build up the feedback, then on the next take suggesting that he start with his guitar already facing the amp and to move closer still, and so on. After three takes, Mark was satisfied, and it was on to the next thing.
The next thing turned out to be some pictures taken by photographer and graphic designer Erick Anderson, whose work has been featured here before (he shot the cover for Leticia Wolf’s album, about which I posted a while ago), so all of the band went off to get changed into their boots, kilts and sporrans to be shot playing in their finery in Studio Two – an opportunity that even these seasoned musicians were excited about.
Before I left, Mark played me a couple of tracks through the monitors in the control room, both the raw multi-track of one of the numbers they had recorded in the morning, deftly demonstrating the variety of sounds captured through his mic placement by muting and soloing various tracks from the Pro Tools HD playback. And he even played me a Blues track, Maybe, on which his wife was singing vocals, and our mutual friend John Hinchey had both written the horn arrangements and was playing trombone. Mark’s mix was tremendously clear and transparent, and it sounded phenomenal coming through the monitors.
After a couple of short hours I bade Gallus and Mark farewell, thanking them for allowing me to intrude on their session for a couple of hours. Stepping out of the hushed, soundproofed walls of Abbey Road, blinking into the blustery spring afternoon and the ever-present throng of tourists at the crossing, I reflected on how fortunate I am that my involvement in the technology of modern music making allows me to have experiences like this.
As I commented to Mark the bassist, who thanked me for the time-saving guitar tab features in Sibelius, the role that technology like Sibelius and Pro Tools plays in making music may be important, but it is only a fraction of the whole story: without talented producers and engineers like Mark Hornsby, and without talented musicians like the lads from Gallus, Abbey Road Studios would just be another unassuming building in north London, and no tourists would flock to its doors day after day, hoping for a glimpse of a musical icon.