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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

EMI's Famous Consoles And Little Known Ambiophony Technology

Here are couple of excerpts from the Ken Scott autobiography Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust that I cowrote with him both involving some of the gear used at EMI's Abbey Road Studios back in the heyday of The Beatles. These are both sidebars from Chapter 7 entitled "Engineering Other EMI Artists," and cover the famous EMI consoles as well as a little known feature of the the large Abbey Road Studio 1 called Ambiophony.

"The EMI Consoles
EMI REDD.37 console image
The sound of The Beatles came from a number of custom consoles designed in-house by EMI; the REDD.37 and REDD.51 “Stereosonic” Four-Track Mixer Desks, and later the TG12345. Although the very first Beatles album was recorded on the REDD.37, the REDD.51 was used to record about 85% of their songs, according to Recording The Beatles. Both consoles were nearly identical and were based around valve (vacuum tube) electronics. The consoles were what we’d consider very simple by today’s standards, but were quite sophisticated for their time and very scary the first time I ever saw one as a 16 year old kid. They each had 8 input channels that fed 4 output (subgroup/buss) faders, with two aux sends and  2 stereo returns. The console also had two Auxiliary line inputs, but they were rarely used because of the lack of EQ on these channels.

EMI TG12345 console image
Since the REDD series consoles were woefully inadequate for 8 track recording, a new console was eventually brought in. In 1968, EMI installed the solid state TG12345 in Number 2 control room. It boasted 24 inputs and 8 subgroups/busses, four echo sends, two separate cue mixes, and a limiter/compressor on every channel.

I worked very little on the TG, using the one in Number 2 for a few tracks on the Mary Hopkin album Postcard and for the majority of A Salty Dog by Procol Harum, as far as I recall. I have to say that I'm a bad judge of the TGs though. The change from the old REDD desks to the more modern TG was a painful one for most of us at the studio, and I don't think any of us liked it. It had none of the warmth, both literally and physically, that the REDDs had. That being said, some great sounding records were made on it, but first impressions go a very long way.

Even though Studio 1 was one of the largest recoding rooms in the world, it only had a short reverb time; 2.4 seconds if you want to be precise. While this was plenty for most music recording, many classical producers preferred a longer reverb time like that of Kingsway Hall, a place many classical recordings were being made by both EMI and Decca at the time. In an attempt to remedy the situation, EMI employed an experimental system known as Ambiophony.

Delay Drum graphic
The system was built around a new piece of technology known as a delay drum; a rotating metal disc drum on the outside with oxide that acted just like a piece of magnetic tape. The difference was that it doesn’t take long for a tape loop to start to wear out, something the drum never did. A signal from the studio was sent to the drum, then multiple playback heads placed around the outside of it would pick off the signal and send it out to different speakers placed around the studio.

In the end, the Ambiophony system wasn’t much of a success, since even though it may have been very clever for its time, it was extremely touchy to set up and suffered from feedback in the studio. It was, apparently, used by Geoff (Emerick) on one Beatles song, the incredible orchestral overdub on “A Day In The Life” from Sgt. Pepper."

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