Though famed for their London recording facility, Abbey Road Studios has been branching out their brand in the 2010s, from plugins and merchandise to events and even a music school. The Abbey Road Institute is an educational organisation set up with support from Universal Music, and it has branches in the UK, Germany, France, Netherlands and South Africa. I was able to pass by the Paris school to have a chat with its Managing Director, Jean-Philippe Boisson, about how the Institute came to be and the history of its location, formerly known as Studio Omega.
– Hi Jean-Philippe. Thanks for having me over to chat. Can we start by talking about your background in the music industry?
Sure. I started off as a thirteen year-old guitarist in 1993 when I was asked to play on an EP of a local heavy metal band. It had nothing to do with my talent though; they just thought it funny that a kid could play guitar. I was in their town for holidays and the original guitarist wasn’t able to attend the recording session, so they threw me in for fun and it worked out. That experience led to other guitar session opportunities for me, but when my parents finally told me to quit with music and get a real job, I was able to convince them that audio engineering was a real job. That’s how I got started as a runner and then progressed to becoming an engineer.
I started in Studio Coppelia, which is a place that still exists in Paris. At the time, they had recording sessions all year round, which was good for gaining experience. In a situation like that, you have do enough free work until you’re good enough to get paid, which is what I did. After Coppelia, I started working as a freelance engineer in France and other places where I grew up, like Senegal, Morocco and Polynesia.
As you may know, the SAE Institute was bought up by a corporation called Navitas. So in order to maintain the kind of life I wanted, I decided to leave once they started making changes to the school. Also, Abbey Road Studios were the ones who called and asked me to become Managing Director of their institute. So I just accepted their offer.
– Why do you think Abbey Road called you? Was it because of your previous work at SAE, or something else on your résumé?
I think it was mainly about my music industry background. I’ve worked with a lot of respected engineers and many of them are my friends that have done Masterclasses here, like Tom Lord-Alge and Hans-Martin Buff. Abbey Road knew about those relationships, and my business background probably had something to do with it too. Also, if you want to start a business, you’re going to contact someone with the relevant business background, and my time at SAE provided me with that. I was a manager there for over seven years, and everyone knows I took over when the school was in a complicated situation, yet I was able to turn things around towards sustainable growth. So I think all of that played a part in why Abbey Road called me.
– Can you describe the process of them reaching out to you?
Sure. After I left SAE, I just wanted to do something different. I was like, “Rock and roll is over, and I’m not sure what to do now, but it needs to be different from my work at SAE “. Some French music schools contacted me about working for them when they learned I was on the market. These were guys who hated me when I managed SAE, but now they felt I could be an asset to them (laughs). But the French aren’t as direct as the English can be. The typical French way is to say, “I know someone who knows someone that might be interested to speak with you, but not in person, bla bla bla “. I had two French schools approach me like that, without any formal proposals. Then the phone rang one day and I saw the UK country code on the screen. When I picked up, the caller was like, “Hi. Have you heard of Abbey Road Studios? ” and I was like, “Yes… (duh)“. He said, “Okay, we’d like to have a discussion with you because we’ve heard that you’re on the market. Would you like to come by Abbey Road studio so we can make a pitch? “. Of course I accepted, and that was how I came to work here.
– And what was the meeting like at Abbey Road Studios in London? Anything you can share about that?
Yeah, I have a story about that. During the interview, the lady I spoke with asked if I was familiar with the “EMI Recording Rules“. It was something I’d heard about, but more as a fairy tale than reality. She explained that when Abbey Road was initially set up as EMI Studios, rock and roll didn’t exist as a standardized genre yet, so they created the “EMI Recording Rules” as an instruction manual on how to record. Their scientists would take measurements of different things and say stuff like, “If you want to record drums, you must use this particular mic, placed in this exact position so that the waveform can travel the correct distance “. It might sound strange, but this is what the people who recorded The Beatles followed, like Ken Scott and Geoff Emerick. I knew Geoff before he passed, and I’ve discussed this with Ken also, so I had reason to believe the rules existed, but when the lady actually pulled out a document and said, “Here are the EMI Recording Rules “, my jaw dropped – so it was real after all. The lady said, “We’ve updated the rules, and will be using them as part of a new educational program in London. We’re considering opening one in Paris also. Would you be interested in managing that? “. I was excited, but I kept calm and said, “Tell me more “, because I didn’t want to be a part of something that wasn’t well-planned. Just because Abbey Road Studio was a legendary studio didn’t mean that their Institute wouldn’t be a random building in Paris, run by a guy with some laptops and plugins. But as the lady explained more of the plan to me, I saw that it made sense and I thought, “Maybe rock and roll isn’t over after all…“, and I signed on (laughs).
– But the landscape of the music industry has changed to the point where major labels would rather sign rap music that sells singles over everything else. So if this Institute is a business that has to serve its market, why would your students care about Abbey Road’s rock and roll legacy over the current pop music trends?
Because what we offer is not just any music production course – it’s Abbey Road’s music production course, which is a unique thing. Also, we’ve had artists who are immersed in the hip-hop world as clients here, like Anderson .Paak and Tory Lanez, so we do embrace that genre. However, people who want to come here should understand that even though we have hip-hop and electronic music production courses, this is not a school for technical studies. The program does includes learning technical skills, but it’s a primarily creative music production course that covers many fields. Sometimes people tell me, “I want to come here because I love hip-hop, etc “, and I have to remind them that even though hip-hop is dominant today, it won’t always be. That’s why we avoid saying things like, “The Beatles is all that matters! “. You have to be able to produce any genre of music, and if someone is singularly focused on any genre, then this isn’t the place for them.
– Prior to becoming the Abbey Road Institute, this building was known as Studio Omega, and prior to that it was known as Studio Mega. Both were famous places. Can you walk me through the timeline of these studios before you guys moved in?
The start of the timeline is a bit fuzzy for me, but I believe it started around 1987 in a German bunker not far from Paris, near Bois de Boulogne; that was the first iteration of Studio Mega. There are different stories about how the studio moved from the bunker, but the owner, Thierry Rogen, would eventually relocate to this warehouse and the second iteration of Studio Mega started in 1996.
Paris had several recording studios when I started in the industry, but the two biggest ones were Studio Mega and Plus XXX; they were known to be in competition with each other over who had the best gear and recordings. I remember checking out the end-of-year charts for global album sales and there would always one or two recorded in Studio Mega, alongside albums made at other famous studios like Abbey Road, The Village, and Record Plant. Examples were Sting’s “Brand New Day” and many albums for French national stars like Johnny Hallyday and Mylène Farmer. But when digital recording later became dominant, things changed. The owner, who now lives in Thailand, wasn’t a businessman who obsessed over making money. He was an audio engineer, and didn’t want to move from tape to computers. He also felt the business was changing in a way he didn’t like, and he’d made enough money to not have to change his workflow. So his staff offered to buy the studio from him, and they renamed it to “Studio Omega”, which they ran for about ten years before Abbey Road bought it.
(Below: The former Studio Mega)
– Do you still have commercial recording sessions here, like your predecessors did?
Yes we do, though not on a regular basis. A lot of people want to negotiate our prices, which is something I don’t like to do because we don’t really need commercial clients at this point. If someone wants to use a big studio, they should be prepared to pay for it and not expect us to offer lower rates to compete with other studios.
– How did Abbey Road obtain Studio Omega from the previous owners? They just bought it outright?
Not really. I don’t know why, but rather than buy Studio Mega outright, the staff chose to set up a residency here. So when Abbey Road came along, they did the same thing. They bought the equipment and the lease on the place, rather than the building itself. So Studio Omega still exists as a company, whilst we pay the rent and use the facilities.
– Do you know why Abbey Road chose to purchase Studio Omega rather than a place like Plus XXX? I believe it was being demolished at the time and wouldn’t have been hard to purchase.
I don’t think Plus XXX existed anymore in the way it used to. The facilities had already been reduced by the early 2010s because it had already been sold.
– What about Studio Davout?
Studio Davout used to be a big studio in the 60s and 70s, and I’ve been there a lot. But to be honest, it needed to be refurbished and wasn’t as attractive as Studio Mega in the 90s. Also, everyone in the industry knew that Davout was going to close; the rumors had been going around for a while and the landlord wanted to use the building for something else anyway. It’s possible Abbey Road had heard those rumors, which is why they didn’t make a move on it. Another studio that was being considered was Guillaumetell. Even today, it feels like it could be sold at any moment, but its affairs seem a little complicated; the owner would have to sell it to the city of Suresnes because of certain land laws. But Abbey Road never mentioned much to me about considering other studios. Their interest in Studio Omega came from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way“; that album was partially recorded here and later finished at Abbey Road in London, which alerted them about Omega’s potential.
– Can you tell me what your day-to-day work looks like as the manager of the Institute?
My day-to-day tasks are all about making the Institute work, and making our students as happy as possible. There’s a lot of spreadsheets to be managed, but I also teach weekly classes, arrange our Masterclasses, and do quality control for our course. As I mentioned before, we’ve been given certain directives from Abbey Road Studios and we’re required to cover them. It’s fine for teachers to add their own extra content to their lessons, but they can’t ignore the curriculum. So I keep an eye on that, and when I don’t have anything else to do I can always open my email box and find more things to keep me busy.
– What do you enjoy doing the least about your job?
I’m less excited about being a manager than a music person, but my passion for music makes me effective at this particular job because I’m in charge of a music school – I wouldn’t want to be a manager for a company that sells kitchen utensils (laughs). I do this job because it’s part of being in the music business, but the spreadsheets don’t interest me in and of themselves.
– But couldn’t you just be a studio manager in that case? Aren’t there many commercial studios in Paris?
Yes there are, but I don’t like chasing after money, which is what a lot of studio managers end up doing. I already function as a studio manager because the Institute has clients that pay a fixed price upfront. But if I was a manager of a commercial studio, I’d have to negotiate prices to keep the clients happy. The main job of many of my studio manager friends involves chasing clients who owe them money for studio time, and I don’t want to do that.
– How were you been able to find suitable staff and teachers for the Institute?
After working in the music business for over 25 years, I had become acquainted with a lot of people. In addition to working at SAE Paris, I was also the manager of SAE Brussels. It’s not common for one guy to be in charge of two schools, but Brussels had some issues going on, so SAE asked me to manage both. I had recruited over 200 employees between those two schools, so the process of hiring competent staff for Abbey Road wasn’t hard, and if I needed someone for a specialized role, I had many CVs in my inbox.
Abbey Road is a known brand, so it’s not hard to find people that want to work with us, whether individuals or companies, and we have more demand than I have positions to offer. For example, we had lots of things to prepare before our first class in 2015; “Studio A” already existed, but we had to develop the other studios by ourselves, from the furniture to the gear. This was when we’d leave the front door open and different representatives from audio brands would just walk in and start poking around our facilities without warning, looking for someone to talk to about potential partnerships with Abbey Road. At some point I had to be stern and tell them, “Look, you can’t just walk in here unannounced and open all our doors. I’m happy to have a coffee and talk, but we can’t spend all day talking to potential partners. We don’t really need partners – we already have Universal Music and Abbey Road as our partners, and the most important thing is for us to prepare for our first batch of students “. Honestly, I was expecting some people to come knocking, but not to the point where we had to shut the door and tell them to leave us alone. So finding people to work with us isn’t the challenge – but finding the right people is.
– Even though Abbey Road is a revered studio, I’ve heard some odd comments about the Institute from some people. For example, an audio engineer in his 50s was very skeptical when I told him we were doing this interview. He said, “Bah, that’s not the real Abbey Road – it’s just an Institute “. So because Abbey Road has branched into commercial endeavors, there exists a skepticism that the Institute is just a watered-down version of the London studio. What are your thoughts on that?
For those who say that we’re not a real extension of Abbey Road, I would suggest they start their own school and try using the Abbey Road logo to promote it. Also, the word “Institute” is right there in our name, so it’s obvious that we’re not Abbey Road “Studios” in London. But either we belong to Abbey Road and Universal Music or we don’t; they must be very kind corporations to put me in charge of Studio Omega for nothing. But I’m satisfied in either case because the results are the same: this is still my school and I know we do good work here.
I’ve heard the remarks you’re talking about and it used to bother me, but not anymore. It’s interesting how none of the brand partners who came knocking on our doors never thought we weren’t the real thing. Also, we go to Abbey Road Studios twice a year with our students and do workshops and masterclasses there, and even graduation ceremonies. So the real Abbey Road have no problem that we “stole” their logo and do graduation ceremonies at their studios? So you see, the criticism doesn’t make much sense.
– But in general, there’s been a longstanding skepticism about audio schools. The connection between what people pay for and the success that students have in the music industry is not always clear.
But you’re paying for a course, not a job. I know a studio in Paris where you can pay to be an intern, but that’s not what we do here. That would be like my staff paying me for the chance to teach our students. We’re a vocational training center, not a university. In French it’s called “formation professionnelle” – there’s no formal degree involved. You’re paying in order to learn Abbey Road’s way of producing music. But we do help our alumni to make moves in the industry. For example, we have a Facebook group that we use to notify them of opportunities, and I constantly receive job offers in my email that ask me to recommend someone for a position, from engineers to beat-makers. Here’s an example: we were contacted by a studio in Morocco who were looking for an engineer dedicated to making urban music. They were offering both a salary and a flat to live in. So I posted about it in the alumni Facebook group, and our former student, Thomas Chefdeville, got the job. But I can’t guarantee things like that. Being in the music business implies working as a freelancer. We have a saying in France that goes, “Remove your fingers from your ass, and you’ll walk better “, which simply means that you have to be proactive and not get in your own way. In the music world, that means finding clients, working as an assistant if you have to, and being flexible to do what’s necessary until you can get what you really want.
– But after been around for five years, shouldn’t the Abbey Road Institute already have some success stories with their alumni, given weight of your name and brand?
We do have success stories among our alumni, but mainly “success” as defined by the students themselves. I know of one alumni who opened a recording studio; that had been his goal all along and he achieved it. Another guy just wanted to be a producer, but he ended up becoming a booking agent at The Olympia. This was a guy who was in the studio all the time, making beats with his headphones on, yet now he’s works with live acts at The Olympia. Did he fail because he didn’t become a famous beat-maker? Of course not. By that standard, you could say I also failed in my career – I had rock and roll aspirations, but I ended up working with spreadsheets at SAE and Abbey Road (laughs). One of our other alumni is called Clara, and when I spoke to her two years after graduation, she told me that she was working with audio in the anime industry, and she was happy doing that. So I can’t predict that any of of our students will go on to have success, but we do open doors and some people choose to walk through them. But like I said, we don’t promise jobs or sell dreams.
– I recently read an interview by the Managing Director of the Abbey Road Institute London, Luca Barassi. He said that aspiring candidates have to know music theory and have a portfolio of work in the music industry to be accepted at the Abbey Road Institute. Is that true for the Paris branch too?
We do ask for a portfolio, and it’s because our course is too early for someone who’s never worked with music. Also, it’s not just a “Music Production” course – it’s an “Advanced Production Course”. I know it might sound a bit off-putting, but this isn’t for someone with a passing interest in music. It even says on our website that you need “a sufficient background in music”, which could mean one of three things: It means you went to music school and learnt theory, composition and how to play an instrument, although you maybe never played in a band or produced on a computer. The second case is that you can’t read music, but you’ve played in a band, recorded stuff, performed live, and you have experience in the music business as a result. The third case is that you’re a bedroom producer who’s made and released his own music. You may not understand theory, but you know how to start from scratch and manage your own productions, which means you have a self-attained experience. Most of our applicants belong to at least one of these categories, and some of them belong to two. So yes, we do have that as a minimum requirement.
– Another thing Luca said was that the Abbey Road Institute is not government accredited. Why is that? When I interviewed SAE, they seem quite proud of having their accreditation.
Yes I’m aware of that, as I’m the one who got SAE their accreditation when I worked there (laughs). The Abbey Road Institute is not accredited, and we don’t want to be. It’s not like the government just knocks on your door and hands you the accreditation for free; you first have to pass their criteria. They give you a list of things to remove and add to your program in order to redefine the curriculum – only after doing that can you get accredited. It can certainly be beneficial, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it for SAE, but Abbey Road has decided to skip it. Imagine if I said to them, “The French government has decided you need to alter your program to their standards because your production techniques apparently aren’t good enough “. They’d think I was crazy… The Abbey Road Institute already has the support of the world’s biggest label and studio, so government accreditation doesn’t add very much to that. Also, the reason for accreditation is to indicate an equivalence between what a public and private school offers, which doesn’t apply to us. But having said that, if we could get accredited without making changes to our program, it might be something of interest, but not otherwise.
– As someone with experience in both worlds, how would you compare your time at the Abbey Road Institute versus SAE?
I don’t really compare them. SAE is a school among other schools, but it’s obviously not a place I look at favorably anymore. When you spend years of your life with a company that later makes changes that forces you to leave, it’s not a pleasant experience. But the only other option was to stay and remain dissatisfied. I remember the school’s CEO writing me an email when I was about to leave. He wanted me to stay, and when I refused, he came in person to ask me what I needed, and I said, “I won’t stay, and it’s not about the money – it’s about what SAE has become: a big, public company that has to act like one. If I wanted to work in a place like that, I’d have studied accounting, not audio. You don’t need audio people here because you’d rather offer creative courses for video games and animation. Those industries come up with new ideas every two weeks to serve their markets, but that’s not what I do, so I have to leave. ” Anytime I see advertising for SAE Paris and I look at the direction they’re going in, I feel increasingly comfortable with my decision to leave; my only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier.
(Below: Jean-Philippe Boisson)
– What kind of a drop-out rate do you guys have among your students?
We do have a few drop-outs, but that’s mainly as a result of our policy. The courses are split into three terms, with each one being three to six months long. If you fail one term, you can’t continue to the next, although you can do it again if you want. But we’re clear about the process and we encourage people to think it through before starting. Obviously, managing school life and private life is hard, but what’s even harder is real life. You have to be committed to your studies, but even more committed to your clients because they won’t hesitate to call you at 4am and complain about their snare sound. So if you can’t commit to a course, it might be better to reconsider taking it.
It’s not always possible to detect who’s suitable for the program just by interviewing them. They might seem right at first, but we get it wrong sometimes. If someone interviews for a job out of necessity, it’s normal for them to fake their enthusiasm and we get that sometimes. But I receive reports on a monthly basis about our student’s performance, and I pick out the three who are struggling the most to have a discussion with them. It might be a lack of attendance or a personal issue that’s holding them back, and we try our best to help them, but ultimately we lose about five people each term in spite of that.
– But what if someone fails a term and drops out? Didn’t they pay €15,000 for the program?
But course we refund them. If a student isn’t part of the program anymore, I don’t need to keep his money to pay for teaching resources that he’s not using.
– And how long are your programs?
We have a one- and two-year program. The two-year option is only for France and the Netherlands, and it includes public holidays like Halloween and Easter, which leaves 36 weeks of teaching. The one-year courses have only summer and winter vacations, with 47 weeks of teaching.
– I see something on your website about “preparatory courses”. Can you explain what that is?
It’s a stand-alone course that we started two years ago for people who failed the entry interview because they didn’t have sufficient musical background. It’s a course dedicated to giving the basics of engineering, production, and music business, and anyone who takes it can continue with the main course afterwards.
Music business classes are an important part of the preparatory course because there are a lot of crazy stories floating around about the industry, and we want to prepare our students for how difficult things can be. We try to remind them that no-one cares if they succeed in this business or not, and they have to think through their decisions carefully so they don’t waste time chasing pipe dreams. Here’s a story from my time at SAE Paris to illustrate what I mean: I had scheduled a talk with a student because he’d failed an important exam. At SAE, you can continue with the program even if you fail your exams, but I kindly advised him not to continue because that particular exam was important and he had failed critically. He told me that he wanted to study more, but he was 35 years old with a wife and kid, so he had to leave school by 4pm to take care of them. So I asked him why he was getting his SAE education and he said, “To be live sound engineer “. I was immediately confused, so I answered him, “You have to be home by 4pm, yet you’re aspiring to be a live engineer who has to work shows that potentially start at 9pm? How will that work with your family life? “, and he was like “Uhhhh….“. He hadn’t thought about it, and starting getting really nervous. But I had to tell him, “Your only chance to make live sound and family life work is to get employed by Disney on Ice or something, where you can work day shifts….“. I’ve never been a live engineer, but it’s not rocket science to know what the schedule is. So we try to educate people about those kinds of things in our preparatory courses.
– How much does the preparatory course cost?
Around €2240 for a four-month course.
– Is all the course-work obligatory for your students?
No it’s not. For example, we do workshops at other studios, like Rockfield Studios in Wales, where Queen recorded “Sheer Heart Attack” and “A Night At The Opera“. Our students will produce a band there from beginning to end for a weekend whilst getting tutored by the in-house engineers. But it’s more about offering a unique experience to those who want it. If a student only wants to make music on their laptop and doesn’t care about analog recording, it’s totally fine for them not to attend, and it’s the same with our Masterclasses – we don’t force students to participate. For example, Jennifer Batten was a guitarist who toured with Michael Jackson for many years, but if a student has no interest in her Masterclass, they don’t have to attend, though it would be a missed opportunity for them.
– I’ve heard that alumni are not able to use the school facilities for free, and have to pay the same rates as your regular clients. Is that true?
No, we don’t charge them like regular clients; our alumni get a reduced price. But I highly advise all of them to spread their wings and work in other studios. When a commercial client books a room here, I have to pay for the assistant, the engineer, the food, the electricity and the maintenance of the gear. So if a former student wants to come, I’m happy to help them, but we need to be fair on both sides. I won’t pay for an assistant and an external engineer when the student graduated with his own engineering skills. But having said that, I’m happy to see our former students, which is why we organize an alumni party each year and we also invite them to our Masterclasses. But I think it’s a bad idea for them to always depend on coming back here because it doesn’t help build their network in the industry. There are other studios not too far from us, like Audioscope, that are good alternatives.
– And what do you charge for “Studio A”?
We’ll probably make changes to our prices in 2020, as I don’t want to upset any other studio owners by being too competitive with our prices. But for now, it’s €1500 a day and €1200 a night for Studio A, before tax.
– Do you get any high-profile clients here?
Sometimes, yes. When high-profile artists are on tour in Paris and need somewhere to record after their shows, they sometimes call us. That was how we got clients like Anderson .Paak and Tory Lanez to come here. Also, Celine Dion reached out to us a few years ago and was quite eager to record her new music here. We had a long talk with her producer, Humberto Gatica, and they were adamant about coming here because she’d made a number of albums at Studio Mega in the past. So we agreed to do a lock-down during the summer break for them.
– Were there any interesting developments that came about because of a client like that?
Actually, yes. We agreed that they would be done with “Studio A” before the school term started on Monday, but they still weren’t done by Sunday. So Humberto came to me on Sunday evening and said, “Jean-Phillipe, we need another day…“, and I responded, “We can’t do that. Summer break is over and we have students coming tomorrow. I can’t guarantee that they won’t open the door and disturb you “, and he was like, “That okay. We’re just finishing up the mixes. Celine was only here for six days and she’s already left “. I still wasn’t willing to do it, but he offered me a deal: ” Let us keep the studio from 9am until the school closes at 6pm. Tell the students you’re sorry it was closed for exceptional circumstances, but they can now look forward to a Masterclass with Humberto Gatica, talking about Celine Dion’s new album “. I couldn’t turn that down, so we shook hands on it and the Masterclass went great. That kind of thing works as a one-time deal, but we can’t do it all the time.
– Do you ever get students who come here with delusions about being the next Beatles producer?
No, thankfully not (laughs). Sometimes people make jokes about that, and students take pictures when we’re at the London studios to recreate The Beatles album covers, but it’s all just for fun. But I did have an interview with a prospective student who told me they thought this was a school that taught how to record with the former equipment of The Beatles. I wasn’t sure why he would think that. If you book Studio One at Abbey Road Studios, they have a Neve 88RS which was made in the mid-2000s; they don’t use the REDD .37 console anymore, which probably isn’t functional and is somewhere in the basement. You wouldn’t be able to make the next Star Wars score with that either.
– Can you tell me about the facilities and gear you have here?
We have four studios here, titled “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”, in addition to five classrooms that come with computers, plugins and Apollo Twin interfaces for each student.
(Below: Classroom at Abbey Road Institute France)
“Studio A” is the primary studio, which was already furnished when we moved in, though we’ve recently updated some of the gear in there. “Studios B”, “C” and “D” were created from scratch. The physical rooms already existed but the equipment was either outdated or didn’t work, so we brought in our own stuff. I made a list of all the gear that Abbey Road Studios had and did my best to obtain the same stuff. Studios Omega already had some of it and other things aren’t possible to buy anymore, but I was able to get about 85% of what I was after. I also had to buy more microphones. We already had condensers like the Neumann U47s, U67s and M149s, but we were missing a lot of dynamic mics like the SM57. We only had three of those, so I bought more.
Because of its size, “Studio A” works well for recording bands, and it’s the one we rent to commercial clients. Our control room is pretty big, and the desk is a 96-channel SSL XL 9000 K. Instrument-wise, we have a Steinway grand piano and the amp stacks are Mesa Boogie Mark V, a Marshall JVM and some Eden bass amps. For drums we have three different kits from brands like Natal and Yamaha, and the speakers are custom-made TADs, with power amps from Bryston and Crown.
(Below: Studio A)
“Studio B” has an Avid S6 and channel strips from consoles like Trident, Studer, Neve, and MCI. We also have Pultec EQs, Bricasti reverbs and Focusrite converters in there, as well as Bowers & Wilkins speakers.
(Below: Studio B)
“Studio C” focuses on instruments like guitars and synths, and there’s a small vocal booth in there as well. We have a partnership with Gibson, which as provided us with multiple guitars for that studio.
(Below: Studio C)
“Studio D” is the smallest one and it gets used for mastering projects, editing work, or for listening back to music. It’s equipped with PMC speakers, Bax EQs, an OCL-2 compressor, a TC Electronic Finalizer, a Revox tape machine and Antelope converters.
– Out of curiosity, why did you put PMC speakers in studios “C” and “D”?
Firstly, I think they’re great speakers. Secondly, Abbey Road set some rules when we started, and one of them was that PMC speakers were to be used. I didn’t argue about it because PMC is a good brand, but if I’d been told to use speakers from something like TAPCO, I probably would have pushed back. But since PMC is in the same league as Bowers & Wilkins, Barefoot or Klinger Favre, it turned out to be a good choice.
– And why did you install an Avid S6 in “Studio B”when it’s primarily just a control surface for Pro Tools?
It was something Abbey Road put in place because they wanted to offer students the option between an analog desk and a digital remote, and you might as well get a remote made by Avid since they’re the industry standard. But had it been my choice, I’d have gone with another analog desk, as I’m not a big fan of remotes. But this isn’t Disneyland where you get everything you want (laughs). And depriving our students of working with control surfaces is to their disadvantage. I’m also aware that there’s a double standard with analog and digital consoles. When people have a technical issue with an analog console, they say “Oh, it’s a fragile thing, let’s repair it “, but when they have an issue with the S6, they say “This piece of crap remote thing that doesn’t work! “. So it can be a bit unfair towards digital consoles sometimes, but the market still requires that we have one.
– I see you have some MCI channel strips on a nearby couch. What are those for?
I’m creating a new studio that will be used for most of our teaching purposes. At the moment, there’s a lot of things I can’t demonstrate when teaching in “Studio A” because the room isn’t equipped for it, and it’s not meant to be a classroom either. So the new space I’m building is centered around an MCI JH-600 and its meant to become an extensive control room that still serves as a classroom.
– Let’s wrap up by talking about your Masterclasses. What’s been some of the most interesting Masterclass you’ve done here?
Susan Rogers, who teaches at Berklee and worked on “Purple Rain” for Prince, was incredibly sweet. I was introduced to her through Hans-Martin Buff, who was another engineer for Prince. Susan agreed to do a whole recording and mixing session with us, in addition to a Q&A, and she made sure to stop and explain everything that she was doing. Some people just charge ahead and push buttons without explaining anything to the students and I have to ask them to slow down. But Susan was great.
Al Schmitt was good too. He’s the engineer with most Grammy Awards in his career, and he brought multi-tracks from Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall and Paul McCartney and told the students to ask him whatever they wanted.
Tom Lord-Algae is my good friend, and he was kind enough to do a video class in addition to coming in person. I sometimes ask the guests if they’ll do a fifteen-minute video that will be available to the public, and some agree to do it. Tom was one of those, and he even included a presentation of how he treats drums. Also, because he’s known for the sound of late 90s and early 2000s, he was able to bring in music from Korn and Marilyn Manson to talk about.
Hans-Martin Buff was amazing. He’s worked in education before, so he takes his job very seriously. He’s one of the few guys that I can leave alone for the whole class and everything still goes fine, whether he’s doing a recording or mixing session.
Andrew Scheps was really good. His class wasn’t that long because he didn’t have as much time, but he gave us four hours of deconstructing his mixes, which was fun.
Sylvia Massy was a real rock and roll lady. Hers was the only Masterclass I had to stop because it got late and the students had to go home (laughs). First we talked about her background and technical approaches in the studio, and then we booked a recording session for another day. I suggested that we create a band entirely made of our students so she could produce them, which she agreed to do and it went really well. We started around 10am, and even at 10pm she still wanted to keep going. But she was so creative and had such a good mood about her.
– Thanks for this interview Jean-Philippe. I appreciate you taking the time. So what’s next for the Abbey Road Institute?
We haven’t had any more engineer-related Masterclasses since 2019; the last one was about plugin development with a company called Leapwing. Moving forward, I’ll be working on the MCI classroom, and we’re also expanding the preparatory course. Instrumentation classes are going to be a new addition to that in 2020. We’re not aiming to make anyone a virtuoso, but I think being able to play a little is important for informing students about how instruments work. It’s not about being the best player, but you need to know how to place a vocal or an instrument into a production. We also have to plan some events later in the year, like the Music Producer Convention. It’s a three-day event that attracts mainly American producers and we’ve hosted it for three years, so I look forward to working on that as well.