A couple of weeks ago, we were lucky enough to be invited along to Abbey Road by their speaker provider Bowers and Wilkins (B&W). We’d been fortunate enough visit what is arguably the world’s best known and most famous recording studio for a previous project with Maserati. If you missed our writeup, you can catch up here. This time, the scope was much more filmic in it’s origins as veteran Abbey Road sound technician Jonathan Allen was on hand to answer all our film related questions and even let us have a play on the mixing desk in Sound Studio 3.
Jonathan has worked as an engineer and producer at Abbey Road Studios for twenty years and has a worldwide reputation for his work recording and mixing music for films and television and a wide variety of album projects, particularly classical music. Over the last few years Jonathan has also overseen broadcast events with operas and ballet from the Royal Opera House in London shown live at over 1,000 cinemas. Jonathan has worked with some of the worlds most famous composers John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Williams and George Fenton on titles which include The Hours, Return to Neverland, Toy Story 3, This is It and most recently won a BAFTA Award for his work on mixing and recording for Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.
The morning began entering the huge Studio 1 which is where more soundtracks than you can count have been recorded and where we found out that Johnny Depp’s new movie Transcendence would continue to be recorded later that afternoon. We’d planned to hide in a speaker for good measure (they’re big enough!) but were watched far too closely for this to be even remotely possible!
Abbey Road and Bowers and Wilkins have been working together since 1988 and since then have taken in various incarnations of the B&W flagships speaker systems.
Surrounded 5 huge Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 800D (which cost around £17k per speaker!!) Jonathan explains how scores have changed over the last few decades:
“There’s a lot of stages to forming the team. The music scoring side has actually become an industry in itself and there’s lots of layers to that industry. One of those layers is the composer himself. Generally the composer will have a ‘Music Editor’, it’s grown quite a lot as nowadays as lot of directors will want to use temp music to show the emotions and style of music they want to explore in this film. They’ll then get a very experience Music Editor whose got access to a ridiculous access and knowledge of scores. They’ll have a brief from the Director who may say ‘We’re going edgy, minimal, orchestral’, and the Music Editor will look at other movies which are slightly similar. They’ll find cues from those soundtracks which fit the style and theme of the movie. Star Wars was temped primarily with William Walton and Battle of Britain. Instantly when you hear the Walton music, you can hear it in Star Wars. That whole end section is Walton. They were very conscious that’s what they were going for like Battle of Britain in space.”
Rather amusingly even though these products have some rather insane specs going to volumes and range like nothing you could dream, sometimes it still needs to go higher and even more bass as Jonathan explains:
“Lady Gaga came in last year and these weren’t loud enough so they brought in their own ones and these go some! They brought in these ridiculous boxes here, two sub bins and then they said ‘now we’re there!’ The difference is that we need to do film mixing and surround mixing and pop music so we have to find what suits best and for the majority these do exactly that.”
He went on to talk about why the B&W monitors are so crucial to what they do at the editing stage:
“We work usually at the end of the film when everyone is particularly knackered and trying to make a deadline. For us it’s a very enjoyable part. Our frustration comes that the is a deadline and every other department has eaten into our deadline and we know we’ve got to make it. We have to be reassured that what we’re listening to is the truth, so we dont get any comebacks. If we’re mixing a film and get a call from the dub to hear there’s a problem with the music, that’s something you don’t want to hear as there’s little time to fix it. We need to know that what we hear here is what people will hear in cinemas. Cinema owners are slow to get a consistency to their cinemas and we know that but it is getting better.”
We ended the tour by having a little play on Studio 2’s mixing desk getting to add our own little mixes to a couple of cues that the studio had worked in over the last ouple of years. The 72 channel desk was so daunting and if we’re honest, we had no idea what did what but just styled it out panning, fading and doing that thing DJs do by putting their hand to their ear and pretending to mix. Yes, we’re very very sad!
Such a fantastic morning spent at a fantastic studio. The place is special and just hearing the name uttered in a sentence, you feel the history, the success and the amazing sounds which come out of Abbey Road. Thanks so much to Abbey Road, Bowers and Wilkins and Jonathan Allen all for having us visit their simply brilliant studio