Meeting Topic: From Grooves to Gigabytes
Moderator Name: Graeme Huon
Speaker Name: Martin Benge
Meeting Location: Virtual Meeting - Zoom
On Monday June 21st, the Melbourne Section of the AES held our regular bi-monthly meeting via Zoom. There was a gratifyingly high attendance of more than forty members and visitors, many from interstate and overseas. The forced move to Zoom has certainly increased the reach of our meetings.
Chairman Graeme Huon introduced Martin Benge to take us through his long and illustrious career as a recording engineer, producer, and studio manager at EMI's Abbey Road (UK), Studios 301(Sydney), and beyond.
Martin titled his talk "From Grooves to Gigabytes".
Martin then outlined his start at the EMI Hayes factory in 1962, where he worked on the manufacture of EMI recording equipment. He was transferred to the Abbey Road Studios technical workshop (known as the "Amp Room") in 1965. Martin recalled that not long after he arrived at Abbey Road, he realized that he wanted to be involved in the actual recording process. He achieved this ambition in the late sixties with a transfer to position as a recording ("balance") engineer.
He then recounted his work at Abbey Road, ranging from the Beatles (Across the Universe), Kathy Kirby (Somethin' is Happenin') as well as a range of classical recordings with Otto Klemperer(London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic), Yehudi Menuhin, and classical pianist Daniel Barrenboim. He spent some time covering the microphone choice and placement used for these various situations.
Martin then went on to describe the hardware of the day, including the EMI BTR2(mono) and BTR3(stereo) tape recorders, and the care that had to be taken in their alignment. He went on to describe the arrival of the (now famous) Studer J37 4-Track, the quality of the machine, and the additional flexibility it added.
After this he described the arrival of their first 8-Track machine, an early 3M Model M23, and the introduction of their first 8-Track capable transistorized console the TG12345. He recalled the steep learning curve needed to deal with the very nasty-sounding transistor clipping distortion, compared to the far more forgiving sound of valve clipping.
He then described the console evolution to the Mark 2, which added 16-track capabilities, and superior electronics and features to the Mark 1. The Mark 4 came later — still 16-Track but with more channels, and an ergonomic curved design. He told us that three of the Mark 4s were installed at Abbey Road.
Martin went on to describe how he left Abbey Road in 1970, got married and went travelling, finally arriving in Sydney where he landed a job at EMI Studios Sydney in 1971.
He described how the studios he found were primarily set up for radio production, a skillset he had to rapidly acquire. Fortunately for Martin, that side of the business was waning, and music recording became the primary function. Martin played for us a short corporate video from 1969 promoting their music recording and vinyl pressing capabilities.
Martin then told of the arrival at 301 of the TG12345 Mk2 which was paired with a Studer A80. He indicated that he regarded this as a fine combination of kit and demonstrated the kind of recordings he could make with what combination.
He then covered his post-1975 freelance period, the formation of Rainforest Records with jazz artist John Sangster, and the work that he did (mostly at Studios 301) in that period.
He went on to describe the 1979 improvements at 301, where all three studios were rebuilt with Neve 8078 consoles and dual synchronized 16-Track Studer recorders. He described the challenges of synchronizing dual recorders, along with the challenges of the Neve automation, as well as the incompatibility with other facilities, which were increasingly using 24-Track on 2inch. Martin said that these challenges caused 301 to convert one of the dual 16-Tracks to 24-Track and went on to describe recording Jazz Rock Fusion group Crossfire's Youth in Asia in 1981 - recording at Paradise Studios, mixing at Studios 301.
Martin then recounted that in 1986 he returned to EMI Studios 301 as General Manager, with Studio B then being upgraded to an SSL 4000E. He recalled that the clean sound of the SSL, together with its superior automation capabilities was popular with many. However, the Neve's characteristic "warm" sound was becoming more popular, so the Neves were retained in the other two studios, giving 301 the opportunity to cater to both camps.
Martin then documented the move to digital recording, indicating that of the two competing multitrack formats Sony's DASH and Mitsubishi's PD, EMI internationally went with the PD format. They settled on the Mitsubishi X880 32-Track which mated well with the Neve 8078's 32 busses and 32 channel monitor system. He also remarked that the X880 had excellent converters for the time, well surpassing the Sonys of the day.
Following on, Martin recounted his return in 1992 to Abbey Road in London as Vice President, EMI Studios Group, following EMI's purchase of the Branston studio properties, Townhouse, Olympic, The Manor, Townhouse Three, and Manor Mobiles to add to the Abbey Road property.
He described his involvement with the Beatles Anthology, being produced by George Martin and the three remaining Beatles, and how Abbey Road was able to meet their needs by setting up a facility where they were able to use equipment of the same era as when their music was recorded.
Looking to the future, he indicated his belief that high end studios would always be the best place for audio excellence, with access to professional engineers/producers, acoustics, monitoring, plus the latest technology, knowledge, and experience.
He concluded his presentation with a hint of the future, with new technology and "Artificial Intelligence" driving new ways of working with audio, and online collaboration providing more opportunities for creative music production and business for studios. He also hinted at the opportunities developing from the renewed interest in analogue technologies and niche products such as vinyl.
A series of Q&A sessions followed each discrete section of Martin's presentation covering a wide range of topics.
They covered his motivation to move from technical to recording, the speakers used at Abbey Road in the early days, microphone setup, studio foldback and playback speakers and headphone use, the fate of the EMI UK tape vault, the painful transition from valve consoles to solid state, microphone placement for classical recordings, synchronizers, early ProTools challenges, tape stock performance, noise reduction, stereo digital formats, and many more.
A more comprehensive report, along with a video of the full talk, and Martin's slide deck are available on our website at:
Written By: P Smerdon.