Learning music production the Abbey Road way isn’t cheap — but if it equips you to work in today’s music business, could it be money well spent?
They say that in business, you need to diversify in order to thrive. If that’s true, the world’s most famous recording studio can expect a rosy future. Abbey Road has spent the last couple of decades exploiting its unique brand in increasingly ambitious ways, from selling T-shirts and hosting events, through licensing classic EMI equipment designs, to embracing online mastering and starting their own ‘incubator’ division. The studio has a finger in many pies — including, as we saw last month, the emerging world of cloud-based audio processing.
However, perhaps the most significant commitment Abbey Road has made outside of its core business is in education. This month, a cohort of 20-odd students will become the first ever graduates of the Abbey Road Institute, a new, privately-run education provider based at the famous St John’s Wood address but with branches as far afield as Melbourne. The Insititute has been developed by veterans of other colleges, chief among them UK Managing Director Luca Barassi and Programme Director Carlos Lellis.
There is a lot of cynicism about formal education in music production. Some state providers are perceived as being out of touch with the real world. Some private institutions have earned the reputation of being unscrupulous money-grabbers. And education programmes on both sides of the divide face the same oft-repeated criticism: that they’re offering vocational training for a vocation that barely exists any more. Indeed, the very reason studios need to diversify is because there is no longer so much money in the core business of recording — so why is Abbey Road, of all places, training people to work in the music industry?
The answer, it seems, is two-fold. On the one hand, the Institute is in a unique position to draw on the 80-year history of Abbey Road as an educational resource. Yet, at the same time, it’s distinctive in focusing on training for the music industry of the future, not the industry of the past.
“In the past I’ve been involved with another institution, and the focus was sound engineering,” says Luca Barassi, “and it was quite tricky to defend the position of a hardcore engineering course to the public, when the sceptics would say ‘There are no jobs. Why are you training people for an industry that is folding?’ But I think the industry is changing, rather than folding.
“We don’t see the point in training someone to be a sound engineer that is expecting to start as a runner, then an assistant and then a head engineer, because that requires a structure that no longer is there. What we are teaching is music production, and the way we define a music producer nowadays is by looking at what the role of the producer has been throughout history. Sir George Martin, for example, was the person who knew music, was the person that had management skills, and was the person who could see potential in the musicians and develop what they had — but back then, because of the different structure, he didn’t need the technical knowledge. He could rely on the Geoff Emericks and Ken Scotts to actually deliver a vision that was there.
“We take the first part of the role of the music producer — the music knowledge, the management skills, the people skills, the being in charge of a session — and bring that into the modern age by feeling that it is necessary for a music producer today to have the technical knowledge. We are not inventing anything with this: this is how the industry has developed. It’s easier to teach how to use a console, how to press buttons, because that is a very straightforward process. It becomes very tricky to start teaching the nuances of how to run a session, how to read the room, how to add some psychology into what you’re doing to get the performance you want from a musician. We feel we have been able to put together a curriculum that can guide our students in that direction. So, we are an audio school — but we are not offering yet another audio engineering course.
“We focus a lot on attitude. We all know that it is more likely you will be successful if people like to work with you, than if you are a genius but people do not like to work with you. That’s why we feel we have a good balance in technical knowledge alongside some psychology and soft skills. We think sometimes those things can be overlooked in some courses. You should know when it is appropriate for you to step into a room and when it’s not. You should know when it’s appropriate for you to share your opinion and when it’s not.”
That’s all well and good, but Abbey Road Institute is hardly the first college to offer a programme that goes beyond hardcore audio engineering. Courses abound in Music Technology, Music Production, Music Business and related disciplines; and what’s more, many of them are offered by established universities that are able to award honours degrees. Why should people instead pay large sums of money to study at a small private institution that is not part of any formal higher education structure?
Luca Barassi and Carlos Lellis both see the size of the Institute and its freedom from oversight by academic authorities as positives, making it more nimble at keeping up with changes in the industry. “For the time being, we have chosen not to pursue an official academic title of higher education or further education, because we’ve experienced what that requires,” says the former. “There is a lot of red tape, and there is a lot of having to compromise the curriculum to somehow make it translatable for people who are not necessarily from the industry, who are going to be looking at how you are teaching things. For us, it is much more important to have a seal of approval from the industry.”
“I was programme leader at a college that was quite regulated,” adds Carlos, “and although there were certain things I really liked about what we did, there was a bit of a slow reaction. If you talk to someone who’s made the transition to become more of an academic than an engineer, they’ll tell you that sometimes the curriculum responds a bit too slowly to innovation. You have some cool ideas in your head and you want to implement them, but it’s a lot slower.”
For similar reasons, both feel that a large network of relatively small Institutes worldwide is preferable to a smaller number of factory-like large facilities. “We will continue to expand, but we prefer the policy of having multiple locations rather than having huge schools,” explains Luca. “No school has a target of hundreds of students, we don’t feel that’s sustainable. We want to have organic growth.”
Outside of London, there are currently Abbey Road Institutes in Paris, Frankfurt, Berlin and Melbourne, with Amsterdam and Sydney next on the list. The ‘mother’ Institute, where courses are developed and administered, is actually the smallest; naturally, it was seen as important that the Institute share the famous building in St John’s Wood, but space there is always at a premium, and it also needs to accommodate the administrative and managerial arms of the organisation. “The curriculum that is delivered in the other schools is set here,” says Luca. “We monitor the quality of what they are delivering by setting the theory exams ourselves for the other schools, and we also double-check and moderate the assignments that are submitted. So we can guarantee that the quality of students is consistent, and also that the quality of staff marking is consistent.”
One of the key features that both Luca and Carlos see as separating the Institute from other educational institutions is the way in which its curriculum draws on the specific history and practice of Abbey Road Studios. “Our unique position is that we started this from within the industry,” insists Luca. “The curriculum started with us sitting down with engineers from Abbey Road and asking them how they approach recording, what they do from when they start to the end of a session, how they see things, and what students should focus on if they want to work in the same way. We were able to go back with what we had put together and get their feedback and opinion, and that is not necessarily the case for every educational institution.
“While there has been education going on in this place as a matter of necessity, to train the future workforce, the industry has never been able to stop and think, ‘Now we’ve got some time, let’s formalise this and write it down.’ We use the past and the history to teach us a better way forward.”
“A lot of the stuff that happened in music production got very poorly documented, which is a shame,” adds Carlos, “because it would be great for people to be able to go back to some of these classic sessions and be able to see what happened. Not just ‘Where did you put the microphone?’, but ‘How was the human interaction side? Did the takes come naturally? Did you have to coax them?’ I think the Abbey Road heritage comes in because there was documentation here. Having worked in other studios, I think there’s something so great that needs to be preserved here, because nothing is the result of a quick decision: every invention, every new way of doing things, is a reaction to a change in music production.”
“I also think that the curriculum that we are offering is different from the other institutions in that it is taking you through a journey,” continues Luca. “Abbey Road has furnished us with a long history of music production and recording, and the curriculum is structured that way. We look at decades. When this place was opened in the ’30s, the music that was produced here was mainly classical music, alongside some speech recording, so we start looking at how those sessions were produced: from a management point of view, from a technical point of view, but also from a musical point of view. And we always keep that balance between the technology and the musical side, so you don’t run the risk of getting lost and digressing too much into one versus the other.”
As befits a small, boutique organisation, the Abbey Road Institute currently offers just one course: a year-long Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering. It runs twice yearly, with new student intakes in September and March, and the total fees are just under or over £12,000 depending on whether you pay up-front or by instalments.
Formal entrance requirements are modest, but Luca Barassi insists this doesn’t mean anyone can turn up and enrol: “To be accepted onto this course you need to know music. You need to have performance experience. You need to have the right attitude. It’s not about being successful, it’s about being accomplished in what you are trying to do. We are able to ensure that those things are in place because we have a very thorough selection process. It’s not enough for you to pay and be accepted. We test the applicants on their music theory knowledge, and we ask them to prepare a piece to perform for us. Although we’re not testing their skills at playing —this is not a performance course — we want to see that they are able to convey emotion, we want to see that the instrument belongs in their hands. This is because we think you need to know what the artist is going through if you’re going to be advising them or producing them. We also assess technical knowledge. We’re not asking someone to have the expertise of an experienced engineer, but we need to know that this is a path they’ve started before coming to us. That’s why we ask for a portfolio, we need to see that they have been engineering, arranging, producing, editing, all of that.”
Time will tell whether the Abbey Road Institute’s claim to equip students for today’s music business is justified, but with the first cohort about to graduate, both Luca and Carlos are optimistic. Carlos: “For the first time in all my teaching — and I’ve been teaching for a while now — I’m in a class where everyone who’s there wants to be there. And I think beyond the stuff that we can give them, there’s being in a classroom with people who are 100 percent into what they’re doing, and they love what they’re doing and they want to do more of it.”
A couple of students have already left the course early to pursue opportunities that came their way through studying at the Institute, and most of the others have a clear idea of their next step. “I know for a fact that three of them are going to be recording artists, that’s what they want to do,” says Carlos. “I have a couple of guys who want to do the traditional studio thing, I have one person who’s going into business, I have someone who’s looking into the whole ‘fixer’ angle of organising sessions.”
Luca Barassi sums up: “We’re not claiming that we can take someone that has never done something like this to the level of a professional. More importantly, we are not saying that you finish the course and you are a professional — the very definition of a professional is someone who gets paid to do the work they are doing. But we feel we are able to train students to a level where they can start their career. Not every studio’s going to ask the same things of their new recruits, but we need to make sure that the students have the tools to understand what it is they are going to deal with. The ultimate goal of our typical student is not to become an Abbey Road studio engineer. The ultimate goal is to be able to work as a producer as well as an engineer if there is a need for it — to be a content creator.”
The Institute’s web site is at https://abbeyroadinstitute.co.uk.
Luca Barassi is at pains to point out that students enrolling at the Abbey Road Institute are not being trained for a career at Abbey Road, and thus don’t get the run of its legendary recording spaces. Recording assignments are mostly carried out in a small but well-equipped dedicated studio in the Abbey Road basement, while other teaching takes place in classrooms and work areas in the building next door. However, the partnership between the Institute and the studio is a real one, with the famous rooms booked regularly for special teaching events.
“In November 2015, we had Alan Parsons doing a day in Studio 2 with our students doing drum recording technique, and of course we asked Alan to focus a little bit on the sound he had for Dark Side Of The Moon. It seemed fitting to have the engineer in the actual studio try to show them how they achieved that sound, where we also have access to the very same microphones that were used. In a week from now, students will have a day in Studio 1 with John Dunkerley, a former Decca engineer who has more than 20 Grammys in classical music. The Royal College of Music is providing a full orchestra, and our students will be running the session from a technical and a musical point of view with John. So, we don’t give them the keys of the studio, but they get to use the studios to learn.”
What, then, of other Abbey Road Institutes in other countries? “We will never be able to duplicate Abbey Road around the world, so where possible, we link to existing established recording studios. We are planning to open another school in Australia, within Studio 301 [in Sydney]. Paris is using Omega Studio, which is an established Paris studio. Where this has not been possible, we are building schools that have been purposely built with recording studios for the students. But everywhere we are setting up schools, we make sure there is a close connection to an established recording studio. Berlin is an example where we’ve built a studio from scratch, but it’s on the floor below Berlin’s Blackbird Studio, and of course we have a good relation with them to give them the experience that is consistent with what we’re doing. On top of this we also give students from other schools the opportunity to come to Abbey Road for specific workshops.”