Beyond being a massive music fan as a listener, collector, and creator, I've always been interested in the technical aspect of its creation in addition to the aural pleasure it gives me. Part of this is because I'm a musician myself and have done a lot of home recording over the years, but a major factor has to do with being a student of music and really enjoying the mystery, mythology, and romance of the studio. I'm also, as anyone who knows me well will attest to, predominantly into British rock bands; they make up probably ~70% of what I listen to (the balance being American bands), so I know a lot about them and what's gone into the making of their records. When I was sent this new book on The Great British Recording Studios, I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning..I couldn't wait to dive into it as it seemed like it would be right in my wheelhouse. Just looking at the cover and those photos of the Beatles, Stones, Who, Hendrix, and Pink Floyd, I could already tell I was going to be in for a treat and before I get into the actual review, I'll cut to the chase and say that I was not disappointed at all.
Author Howard Massey spent many years working in recording studios in London and, like many other music fans, realized that the unique and defining sound of music recorded in Great Britain in the 1960s to the present is real, being a product not only of the unique studios but the talented, creative, and resourceful staff who approached problems in a different way from their American counterparts. As the legendary George Martin, who wrote the forward to the book so eloquently and succinctly put it, while America emerged from WWII intact and prosperous, England was bruised and battered both physically and mentally, taking almost all of their pop culture cues (especially music) from the US. However, in the effort to make records that "sounded American," British music had an explosion the likes of which have never been seen before or since, in terms of both homegrown talent and studio technology. In doing so, they flipped the script and by the middle of the 1960s, American bands and producers were trying to make their records "sound British." For the next few decades, the British led the way, having some of the finest and most in-demand studios, producers and engineers, and recording technology in the industry. The story of how and why this came to be is at the heart of the book and is one of many things that makes it such a fascinating and enjoyable read.
Massey has broken the book down by chapter, starting first with an introduction on the background of the British recording industry in the early to mid-20th century as well as some basic differences between American and British recording protocol and standards. From here, the book is divided into sections: the first chapter deals with perhaps the most famous recording studio in the world, EMI's Abbey Road Studios, made famous by the Beatles, but also the place where Pink Floyd, the Hollies, and others made numerous legendary records. The following section is dedicated to "The Big Three," the other three record company-owned major studios in competition with Abbey Road from that era: Pye, Philips, and Decca. After this, a section dedicated to "The Early Independents" describes the first and most influential of the various independent studios that popped up to cater to the burgeoning pop and rock music scene, which counted legendary studios like Olympic, Trident, IBC, CBS, and others among its ranks. A section on the smaller independent studios of the era follows, and the book ends with a section on the famous mobile studios of the 1960s and 1970s (such as the Rolling Stones Mobile, the Ronnie Lane Mobile, the Pye Mobile) and a glossary of recording terminology. Each chapter is broken down into smaller sections that first describe the history of the studios followed by detailed descriptions of all of the equipment they used, key personnel and features of the studios (both physical and acoustical), and a list of some of the famous records made there. Besides some great period photographs, the chapters also contain several "Stories From the Studio" sidebars which give extra insight as told by those who worked there. These range from funny anecdotes to descriptions of technical or sonic challenges, as well as innovations. These sidebars really add a lot to the story of each studio and my only complaint is that I'd love even more of them!
For someone like myself who is both an obsessive music fan as well as a musician, the combination of discussion on recording techniques and technical talk about equipment had me in music geek heaven from the start. Massey does a nice job early on of explaining the basics so that even those who may not have a background in music and recording will be able to follow along. There is also the exhaustive glossary at the end of the book to help those less knowledgeable. While reading the book, it was also very cool to recognize so many names and places from all my years of reading album sleeves and credits. Many giants of British studios of that era, from Geoff Emerick and Keith Grant to Tony Visconti and Glyn Johns (and many more) spoke to Massey and offered great insight that could not have been offered had the book been solely based on his research. If I have any complaints, there are two. First, I'd love to see more photographs! While there were many excellent pictures throughout the book of the various studios (both interior and exterior), equipment, and people, I would've liked to have seen even more, especially of some of the more notable and/or exotic vintage equipment. Second, the book seemed to cut off around the late 1980s and it would have been nice for it to include a bit more of a discussion into the 1990s and 2000s. While I understand that the rise of inexpensive home recording has affected the recording industry in the UK over the last twenty years, there are still several excellent studios where many legendary albums from the 1990s and 2000s were recorded. While the book skews heavily toward the classic rock era of the 1960s and 1970s, and this was definitely the golden age for both British rock in particular and rock music in general, the book didn't label itself as such and thus it would've been nice to see the discussion continue into the modern era. However, at almost 350 pages, the book is certainly crammed full with wonderful information and I realize I'm being more than just a little greedy with my quibbles!
While the talent of the bands, the physical studios, and the recording gear played a huge role in the great music made in the UK, it was really the ingenuity of the people who worked in those facilities that brought it all to life. So many of the recording techniques and technologies we take for granted now were developed (often on the fly and on a shoestring budget) through cleverness and because of a real and critical need. The fact that so much of it was done with the more primitive technology of those times only reinforces the brilliance of the engineers and producers who came up with these solutions, making them that much more impressive. The author does a great job emphasizing the symbiosis between the studios and the staff and tells all of their stories with equal parts reverence and humility. If you're a fan of the more technical aspects of music and recording, a fan of British rock music of the 1960s and 1970s, or of that era in general, The Great British Recording Studios is an essential book. It's easily one of the coolest, most interesting, and enjoyable books I've read in a long time and in the off chance that you couldn't tell from the above review, I highly recommend it.
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