NMC Archive - Recording Venues
6 June 2019
This week in our NMC Archive series, we're revisiting an article written for our Friends Newsletter by Stephen Johns, Anthony Burton and Ann McKay about their memories of recording sessions venues.
Anthony Burton, former Radio 3 producer and presenter, freelance writer
I can make the proud claim to have produced NMC D001 … but only because NMC decided to launch its CD catalogue with a recording of Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti that I had supervised as a BBC Radio 3 producer in the Maida Vale One studio in the early 1980s. Producing occasional new recordings for NMC after leaving the Beeb, I only once had the luxury of returning to that well-equipped, blissfully soundproof enclave, for fine performances of two major works of Vic Hoyland by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins (NMC D072).
On the other occasions, I was caught up in the endless search for the perfect London venue, which, if it existed, would have a good acoustic and a convenient control point, would be warm, well-lit and easy to reach, and most important would be free from extraneous noise, acoustic and electrical. Memories of some of NMC’s choices blur, for example, all I can recall of St Silas, Kentish Town (how did I even get there?) is the forest of mic stands, lights, music stands and multiple percussion instruments required for James Wood’s Venancio Mbande Talking with the Trees. But I do remember of other locations how hard it was to tick all the ‘desirable’ boxes at once. For example, there was the Bishopsgate Institute on the fringes of the City, where I spent a Saturday and Sunday with Jane’s Minstrels recording music by Elisabeth Lutyens: decent sound and lighting, and absolutely no traffic at the weekend but something in a nearby office was turning itself on and off automatically and plaguing us with a recurring buzz.
A particular problem, especially in south-west London, is aircraft noise. This can be filtered out to some extent at the editing stage; the trouble comes when you have to edit into or out of a take with a plane on it thus suddenly causing a plane to appear in the sky or, more alarmingly, disappear from it. So on the whole it’s worth trying to avoid it. I suppose this must have forced us into a few retakes during the recording of the Jane Manning portrait album at All Saints, Petersham, a brick-built disused Victorian church on a private estate (now, sadly, converted into a house). But my memories are of some especially warm and friendly sessions, both because of the sunny nature of the soloist, and because of all the composers who dropped in for the recordings of their pieces and for the most part stayed for a chat.
In any case, adverse circumstances can sometimes help to create something special. Rosslyn Hill Chapel in north London, a regular Outside Broadcast venue for BBC recordings in my time and a frequent location for record companies, has a host of problems: buses and lorries climbing the hill to Hampstead, Northern Line trains rumbling underneath, and, if the wind’s in the wrong direction, planes making a loop over Hampstead Heath on the approach to Heathrow. (It also used to have, though I think they’ve now been replaced, a set of noisy radiators which, even after they were switched off for a take, went on making clicking sounds for several minutes.) But it was there, cocooned against all these extraneous forces, that Susan Bickley and the Nash Ensemble – with, I can now reveal, some help from the composer as conductor – mustered the concentration required to perform Simon Bainbridge’s Four Primo Levi Settings with ferocious and moving intensity.
Stephen Johns, NMC Trustee, Artistic Director at Royal College of Music, and ex Vice-President Artists & Repertoire EMI Classics
Opened in 1931 by Sir Edward Elgar, Abbey Road Studios are perhaps the best-known studios in the world. The list of recordings made there across all genres are a roll-call of some of the most important recordings in the history of recorded music: Elgar’s violin concerto with the composer conducting the young Yehudi Menuhin; The Beatles and Pink Floyd; film scores including Star Wars and Harry Potter; Casal’s solo Bach and Gieseking’s Debussy – all have benefitted from the special atmosphere provided by the first purpose-built recording studios in the world. Generations of staff trained there brought a particular feeling of family and stories abound of unlikely combinations of musicians rubbing shoulders in the canteen queue.
Abbey Road was the in-house studio for EMI and its historical ancestors and its relationship with the R&D department led to technological innovations exclusively for the company. Still in use today are the EQ modules designed and built in the 1960s. EMI’s first digital recordings (Previn and the LSO) were made on its own machine – a reel to reel digital tape recorder mounted above the electronic convertors and processors, all housed in what looked suspiciously like a tea trolley. With a rewind time of 25 minutes playback was not encouraged on session. Still in service at the studios are the original microphones from Neumann that have been recording orchestras, soloists, pop groups, comedians and more for the last sixty years.
The main classical space is Studio One. Large enough to take a full symphony orchestra plus chorus and soloists, yet intimate enough for solo recitals, Studio One has an aura unmatched in the world. A number of small redesigns over the years have seen the addition of a balcony above the large control room and the removal of the original stage and organ, but this is a sacred space and no alterations are made that would compromise the acoustic. Unusually for a London classical recording venue it is completely soundproof - only Concorde passing over was known to penetrate the cladding. One recording made there by NMC was the last work of Andzrej Panufnik - his cello concerto - performed by Mstislav Rostropovich and the LSO in June 1992. Another, perhaps quite remarkably, was Tallis’ Spem in Alium recorded in 1948 by the Morley College Choir conducted by Michael Tippett and reissued on Remembering Tippett.
Now a Grade II listed building, removing the immediate threat of redevelopment, and with new owners Universal Music, the future history of the Studios looks bright, but the rapid changes in technology mean that the maintenance of large open studios, in a world where the majority of recordings are made in small isolation rooms and on computers, puts the onus on continual innovation. And it is still possible for anyone to make their mark on this studio – just cross the famous zebra crossing and write on the wall. Painted over every few months, the messages of millions mirror the resonance in the studio walls of all the notes ever played at Abbey Road – probably the most loved studio of them all.
Ann McKay, Chief Producer, BBC Symphony Orchestra
The BBC’s Maida Vale Studios are steeped in BBC heritage and hold a special place in broadcasting history. BBC Maida Vale began life as the Maida Vale Roller Skating Palace and Club. Built in 1909, it was one of the largest rinks of its day holding a capacity of 2620 people, with a balcony enabling spectators to have afternoon tea and view skaters below while waltzes were played by the Palace band! But the Palace only operated for three years and from 1913 until the late 1920s, the building was occupied by a variety of companies including the newly-established National Insurance Scheme. Then, over a period of fifteen months in 1933/1934, one hundred men reduced the building to a shell and rebuilt it with five studios – Studio 1 being the new home of the recently-created (1930) BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was one of the BBC's earliest premises, pre-dating Broadcasting House. When the Orchestra arrived in the building all broadcasts were live, but within a few years, early recording equipment was being installed.
During World War II Maida Vale Studios was the standby centre for BBC News, and the BBCSO and BBC Singers were joined there by the BBC Dance Orchestra, then under the direction of Henry Hall. Eventually they were all evacuated – the BBCSO and its conductor Sir Adrian Boult to Bristol and then Bedford. The Studios were damaged by bombs in 1941. After the war, the building was repaired and in the late 1940s the BBCSO returned. MV Studio 1 is still home to the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Chorus and is used for both studio concerts (including many live broadcasts) and studio recordings. It can hold a large orchestra and chorus, and an audience of 220.
Alongside the great conductors and soloists who have rehearsed, performed and recorded here, many hundreds of composers have passed through including Webern, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Stockhausen, Boulez (Chief Conductor 1971-1975), Henze, Berio, Elliott Carter and Oliver Messiaen. More recently, John Adams, Sofia Gubaidulina, Vic Hoyland, David Bedford, Gordon Crosse, Judith Weir, Mark Simpson, Anna Clyne and Ryan Wigglesworth have joined us to name but a few. Many a fascinating conversation has taken place in the Canteen over lunch!
The BBCSO has been recording for NMC in MV1 since the mid 1990s. It’s an excellent venue for recording contemporary music in particular as the acoustic is quite dry and clean and noise intrusion from outside is minimal. The Control Room abuts the Studio meaning the producer/sound engineer can walk straight into the recording space to make microphone adjustments or talk to the performers, and the performers can easily come into the Control Room for playbacks. There is a small group of BBC sound recording engineers that works with the Orchestra, and they have developed recording techniques over the years to great critical acclaim. And even if the recordings for NMC have come from other venues – like the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall – any remixing and/or editing will have taken place back at MV1.
NMC recordings by the BBCSO in MV1 (with apologies to those missed out unintentionally or on compilation albums!) include works by Anthony Payne (Elgar 3), David Sawer, Brian Elias, Anthony Gilbert, Judith Weir, Robert Saxton, Oliver Knussen and Alexander Goehr.
Overall MV Studios houses a total of seven music and radio drama studios, and – outside its classical music remit – was most famously home to John Peel's BBC Radio 1 Peel Sessions, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (1958-1998, where the Doctor Who theme music was composed). Anyone who is anybody in pop music has performed at Maida Vale over the last 60 years – from the Beatles and Bing Crosby to Kylie Minogue and Miss Dynamite. And not just musicians but actors and playwrights too – recently Alan Bennett, Simon Russell Beale and Penelope Wilton were all spotted in the building!
All entries in chronological order
9 January 2020
16 December 2019
9 December 2019
28 November 2019
21 November 2019
7 November 2019
24 October 2019
17 October 2019
10 October 2019
3 October 2019