The Great British Recording Studios
By Howard Massey

Hal Leonard Books 2015, $34.99, ppxiv-357

Though I was quite familiar with many articles he wrote in the 80s and 90s - most of them, about "technical" matters related to such topics as recording and FM programming for synthesizers - which appeared on such U.S. magazines as Keyboard, Musician, and EQ, I have to confess that the first time I really took notice of Howard Massey's work was thanks to the masterful interview he did with world-famous record producer George Martin, which appeared as the cover story of the February, 1999 issue of Musician magazine. While obviously competent when it came to technical matters, this time Massey also proved himself to be a fine interviewer, having a stimulating, interesting conversation about a topic everybody has read a lot about - a large part of the conversation dealing, of course, with George Martin's collaboration with The Beatles.

The George Martin interview was later included in the fine volume titled Behind The Glass - Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft The Hits, originally published in 2000. The interviews featured in the volume all shared a mood of optimism and creativity, and it was still possible at the time to consider the fact of Musician magazine ceasing publication - something which happened two months after the George Martin cover story went on sale - as an isolated incident due to specific mistakes made by those at the helm.

At that time, I exchanged a few e-mails with Massey - I reviewed both editions of Vol. I of Behind The Glass - and I noticed his jovial mood and his optimistic attitude when it came to the state of the record industry.

It goes without saying that nobody could predict the Napster phenomenon and what came later. So it's a "systemic crisis", not an "isolated problem", which acts as the dramatic background to those interviews featured in Vol. II of Behind The Glass, published at the close of the decade. Closing the book, one had to be skeptical about one's chances to read Vol. III in the series.

And so, through no fault of its own, the recent appearance of The Great British Recording Studios - a work that's intended as a celebration of the creativity and sounds produced in a specific place at a specific time - almost reads as the mourning eulogy of a colossal work that now appears to be destined to cease due to "financial strangling".

Maybe readers will burst out laughing upon reading this, but in my opinion the spectacular graphics featured in this book - hundred of pictures, many of them never seen before, of houses and buildings, streets, rooms, clothes, and sound equipment, all assembled with great care and good taste on pages made of high-quality paper - make it possible to see this book as a subsection of the social history of "Greater London": a photo of Denmark Street from 2013 (on p233) immediately becomes "ancient" upon reading that starting from January, 2015 the street will be razed in order to undergo a dramatic change when it comes to buildings - echoes of The Kinks' Maswell Hillbillies album, mentioned in the chapter dedicated to Morgan studio.

A colossal work, The Great British Recording Studios was endorsed and written with the cooperation of the U.K.-based Association Of Professional Recording Services. There are a lot of vintage pictures, drawings of studio floors, vintage ad brochures, and so on. A hundred tales, often dealing with famous albums, appear under the heading Stories From The Studio, thanks to vintage issues of such magazines as Studio Sound, Sound On Sound, and MIX. There's also a very fine Glossary, a Bibliography, and a comprehensive, well-organized index.

I noticed the non-appearance of Command Studio (it's barely mentioned), where King Crimson recorded two albums. I saw a "John Congas", that reminded me of one "John Kongos" whose music I listened to, once upon a time. Only mistake I could find, on p282 the guitar player from Free, Paul Kossoff, becomes the group's bass player; he's back on guitar, but as "Kosoff", on p298.

Born in the United States, Howard Massey moved to England in the 70s, working as a tourig musician, to become part of Pathway Studio in 1979, so starting a career as an engineer and producer, with a long stint at famed Trident Studio.

The book starts with a bang, with a long preface where Massey paints a background and also clarifies the different approaches - and different equipment - adopted by U.K. and U.S. studios: a chapter, this, that also will be of great interest to those who deal and write about music in a "non-technical" way. The "focus" of the book is obviously on the music production from the mid-50s to the early 80s, but readers beware: when talking about a "golden era" of pop music, Massey doesn't really pronounce a value judgment about music per se, but talks about the "individuality" of sounds as related to a "technical" environment as part of a culture. A perspective that's echoed by other writers who are quoted here, and in a way connects with the Introduction written by U.S. engineer and producer George Massenburg to Vol. II of Behind The Glass.

The Great British Recording Studios presents different chapters, the first one dealing, of course, with the most famous recording studio in the world: EMI, aka Abbey Road.

Each chapter offers the same internal organization: A brief history, a list of names of key personnel, a description of physical facilities, notes about acoustic treatment, room dimension, echo chambers, and an accurate list of key equipment, with subsections on mixers, monitors, tape recorders, microphones, and signal processors. In closing, a discussion of the studio's technical innovations, and a selected discography (funny to notice how many celebrated albums were recorded in studios whose name at first doesn't ring a bell).

After Abbey Road we find chapters on Decca (with engineer Derek Varnals here acting as a narrator), Philips, Pye, IBC, Lansdowne, Advision, Olympic (George Chkiantz does quite a bit of talking), Trident (with their famed piano, and their mixing desks), AIR (with a section dedicated to the collaboration between the studio and world-famous desk designer Rupert Neve), Sound Technique (and their mixing boards). There's also a chapter about sonic innovator Joe Meek.

There are chapters about Wessex, Morgan, Chalk Farm, Apple, Island/Basing Street, Manor, Scorpio Sound, Chipping Norton, SARM, Roundhouse, RAK (an historical studio still going strong today thanks to artists such as Adele, Arctic Monkeys, and Shakira), Good Earth (Tony Visconti's studio), Townhouse, Ridge Farm.

There's also a long, detailed chapter that deals with "mobile studios", many of which quite famous in the history of rock music: The Rolling Stones Mobile, The Pye Mobile, Ronnie Lane Mobile, The Manor Mobile(s), The Island Mobile, The RAK Mobile, The Maison Rouge Mobile (owned by Jethro Tull).

Many of the interviews were conducted for inclusion in this book.

The chapters in the Stories From The Studio series are for the most part quite interesting. Many of the chapters are quite "technical", while others can also be useful to those who regard themselves as being "just a music fan". Here are a few.

Those synchronized echoes featured on Us And Them, on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon, created by Alan Parsons (p27). The start and the ending of the Moody Blues album On The Threshold Of A Dream, with "the sound of the background radiation from the Big Bang" (p64). The recording of the Blind Faith album of same name, especially the section from 6' 41" to 6' 51' off Had To Cry Today. The drum part featured on Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin (p159, while pp170-71 in the chapter about Olympic feature Glyn John's drum miking technique, with a clear colour picture). The section titled Sex Pistols Deconstructed (p246). The recording of an album by "supergroup" GO (pp264-65). The chapter about the world-famous gated drum sound on Phil Collins's In The Air Tonight, appearing under the title The Drum Shot Heard Around The World (p296). The chapter about the recording of John Martyn's album One World, by the Island Mobile, titled The Making Of One World (p324).

Of course, what I offer here is just a little more than an overview, but written after careful reading. By now, readers have all the essential information.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2016 | Mar. 3, 2016