Interview: Bernard Butler on Recording at Abbey Road in the new look Studio 3

Earlier this month, we caught up with Bernard at work in the new look Studio 3 and took time to ask him about his process of working, the role of a studio in 2023 and his thoughts on all things immersive…

When you’re listening to people that you might like to work with, do you hear something on SoundCloud or a playlist or radio and then chase it?

No I don’t really chase anything. I’m not a very good businessman in that way. I’m not very good at doing that. I’m lucky that people have crossed my path, one way or another, and lucky to have the opportunities given to me like this.

And how I look at it is that I always look for a crack in the door. I look for something that is a reason for me to be there. If I hear something that is just fantastic I think there’s no room for me, they don’t need me messing around.

It sounds like I’m looking for a weakness and I’m not. I’m just looking for a thing where I can make a difference.

And I think when you’re musician, you grow up listening to the radio etc and you tune your brain to think if I was doing that, I’d have done this. I might have taken that chorus out. I might have sped it up or what would it be like if it was an acoustic version?

You get used to tuning your brain in that way and I think that when you hear music, if you hear an idea you start to translate that into the world, well what if I put that to the artist?

To see if you can creatively fit in that?

Exactly. it’s about seeing whether they are interested in moving that way. I try and put the whole technical bit aside. I try to make it so that people are not too aware of the technicalities and to do what they do in a room.

Photo: Jill Furmanovsky

How do you feel about the role of a proper commercial studio in 2023?

I think it’s really important that, because of the world we live in, we embrace being in a room together as people.

So the great thing about that and the very mechanical way of working in terms of the kind of instruments you might use.. I like feeling that you can pick up something quite quickly and make decisions really quickly.

I think that it’s a bit of a problem that we can make records on our laptops and our phones. It’s amazing and enabling for us but it can mean that you can start something looking at a screen and within half an hour you’re on your Twitter or your e-mail. You’ve lost your password and you can’t log in or the battery runs out and you’re on your own. You can end up just drifting creatively.

It’s fine but I think there’s something amazing about being a room of people where those barriers don’t come up. Where we can talk and make decisions really quickly and bounce things around.

I find that whenever I’m in that situation things are quite positive. People generally share ideas and are really forthcoming in that way. More than if you e-mail them or text them and you have that minute to think about it and you dither.

I think a lot of the job is not me saying ‘this is what you have to do to your song’ exactly. I won’t say you have to exactly do this, exactly replace that cord or replace that section.

I like to say, ‘I don’t feel this section or something’s not right about this and here is a bunch of tools that we could use to solve that problem’. Or let’s see together what happens, what works for us so then you find an outcome that everyone’s arrived at together.

With the role of the studio itself…  obviously you can start the genesis on a laptop, but in Studio Three in particular, there are instruments here and so it’s a bit like a toy shop. Are there any favourite instruments that you hear and you think I really like the sound of that. Is that part of the process here?

What I love about Abbey Road is the rooms. Just the sound of the rooms. That’s the most essential thing and that’s what I look for. We all know about the heritage and the history and it’s very easy to get sucked up into it and be in awe of The Beatles etc.

But I think you have to have a view where you say what is the most pure essence of something? What makes the the process happen?

And I really think one of the most important things here are the rooms – the sound of the rooms are just beautiful. Studio 3, it just sounds fantastic. When you put instruments there and the drums, it just comes alive. Obviously the other rooms are amazing for that reason as well.

And the second thing is the people at Abbey Road. The people are just so first class and the level of training expertise it’s just beyond anything.

Obviously with laptops etc, anybody can get Logic and can be a producer instantly. And then actually you come here and you meet people who are skilled engineers and it blows your mind.

And they’re all employed full-time which is a rarity in studio isn’t it? 

It’s amazing and it’s a true skill that you should respect and always love those people. All the studios that I’ve worked at through my time, you meet those people and you just grab them. You cherish them because they’re enablers. They’re the people that help you through situations.

You know it is amazing because you get on with your job. So the people at Abbey Road are just great – really welcoming. And they don’t make you feel like you’re in a heritage site.

Sometimes on the artist side they find it intimidating. Then they come here with rooms, the people and all of that subsides?

You put that to one side and get on with what you’re doing. When The Beatles came here they would have been in awe of all the great music that happened before that.

You forget the history of the acts and then just get on and that’s why they created.

So we should have the same mentality which is just to get here and just get on with things. Then studios are just brilliant places to work.

I often think about studios particularly these days because we have lost lots of studios. I work at home an awful lot – we all do. So I have to convince myself what is a studio? How will I define that? Do I need extraordinary acoustics etc?

I think what I need is a space, an environment you know where people are safe and happy. And where there’s interesting stuff that continues….

I mean I always think it’s a meeting place as well.

With studios like this, do you think there’s an element of learning for the people that are here, from engineers to the tech people?

Yeah because it’s your dream list of all the things you’ve read about or you’ve heard about.

One thing that amazes me is all the great mic collections are not just a museum, it’s actually a mic cupboard.

I just said to them the set up for the guitar …. Well there’s a 47 set up already and we can just use that. It’s such a joy because it’s just there. It’s just that’s the nearest one. It’s great.

How do you feel about immersive mixes in sound? Is it something that you interested in or enjoy listening to back?

Yeah I really like it. I’m really interested in it. I think that wherever there’s a limitation, there’s something you can break through. Wherever there’s something you’re cautious of, you’re cautious for a reason and you have to explore it.

I mean that’s part of being creative and so all the immersive audio formats – I’m pretty interested in it.

I think it’s a means of listening. I think when you explain it to people who aren’t like us, you have to explain that it’s just another way of listening where you can enhance your experience. You don’t have to explain the exact amount of speakers and how it’s done or that you have to fill your room with speakers.

A great thing about immersive audio is the headphone experience. That it works on headphones so you don’t have to be sort of boring geeky dad with speakers around your cinema room anymore, you can actually get that experience.

And I had great person within Dolby Atmos showing me how it’s done.

I’ve only done one record in Atmos which is the record I made last year with Jessie Buckley. We did that quite early on in the process of the whole Dolby Atmos thing. It is sort of accelerating quite rapidly.

I did it with Myles Clark who works at Dolby.

Jessie is a novice about studios in general so I said just sit there and we will play the stereo and then play this version. It was just one of those wow moments. It’s amazing.

We did a playback in the Dolby studio in Soho square, it’s just astonishing.

To me it seems various producers or artists feel the need to set their stall out and some are resolutely against it. Do you feel that they’re closing a door?

Yeah, how can you be a creative person and close doors? It just goes against the very essence of it.

I mean you could very easily do a spatial audio mix version where just everything is around you is effectively like mono. That’s very possible.

I don’t see the big deal with it.  What are you so scared of happening?

Like you say stereo is such an odd thing. It is such an accepted thing – the number two. I always think about that left and right two. Why not 3, why not 4? Why should we settle on this number 2?

I guess you could say it’s about ears. But then our ears aren’t hearing like one and two – are they? Our ears aren’t hearing this way all of the time… so it is just sort of quite ludicrous that we settled in that way.

Everybody knows that lots of the early stereo mixes were very odd, including The Beatles, because they were sort of afterthoughts.

I think it’s maybe a fear of change with some people. That they’ll somehow diminish their previous work or they’ve got to dig up their studio and put in more speakers. 

I think one thing about music is that everything is evolving because we are evolving. We are all evolving as people. Our world is evolving around us and that’s not that’s not something that began in 2000 with the Internet.

It’s always been like that. Life has always evolved and culture has always evolved and the times have evolved and our world has evolved. All these things have happened in tandem but when it happens you don’t have to dive into it headlong.

But also if you close the door you’re kind of ignoring the times we’re living in.