Studio Profile: AIR Studios

Fifty years ago, a production company was established that would reset the template for the recording business, as Jim Evans reports.

In August 1965, four leading record producers made a move that was to change the way the music industry worked. Back then, records were still largely produced ‘in-house’ by the major record companies – in the UK it was EMI, Decca (which famously turned down The Beatles) and Pye. Independent recording studios were only just starting to emerge and producers were salaried employees of the labels who rarely got so much as a sniff of a royalty cheque.

In that memorable month, Associated Independent Recording (London) Limited, or AIR for short, was created by George Martin, Ron Richards and John Burgess from EMI, and Peter Sullivan of Decca. Between them, they were responsible for the success of EMI’s and Decca’s top acts, including The Beatles, Tom Jones, Cilla Black, The Hollies and Lulu. Through AIR, they continued to work with these acts – but now with the added benefit of royalty payments.

There was no love lost following the four’s split with the record companies. In his autobiography, All You Need Is Ears, George Martin recalls: “Frustration has many fathers, but few children, among them bitterness, anger and resentment. Those had come to be the unhappy ingredients of my feelings towards EMI. By 1959, I had been running Parlophone for four years. My recordings with Peter Sellers, Milligan, Flanders and Swann and the others had started to make the label mean something. Originally a poor cousin, it had become a force to be reckoned with. But I was still only earning something like £2,700 a year.”

Martin would later comment: “All in all, it is fair to say that relations between AIR and EMI have been less than cordial over the years since we first broke free from them. That is, despite the many successful records we have made for them since we went independent, including Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Once free from the shackles of the majors, the newly-liberated producers based the nascent AIR in offices on Park Street in London’s West End and bought studio time for their artists in Abbey Road, Chappells, Decca and Morgan and a handful of other commercial studios operating in the capital at the time, such as Advision, Lansdowne and IBC. The plan was to eventually build their own studios and by 1967 the group had earned enough royalties from these new production deals to finance the venture. Eventually, premises were found in Oxford Street on the fourth floor of the Peter Robinson department store building, which included a large banqueting hall.

It would prove to be not the easiest of places to build a recording studio. Being in central London was about all it had going for it. But Martin and team had other ideas. Kenneth Shearer – whose credits include the Royal Albert Hall’s ‘flying saucers’ – was brought in to deal with the considerable acoustic problems.

Martin recalls: “The answer to the rumble up through the building from the Underground was drastic, and dramatic. The whole works – studios and control rooms – would be made completely independent of the main building. Essentially, a huge box was to be built inside the banqueting hall, and mounted on acoustic mounts.”

Up and running at last

The studios opened for business in October 1970, and in true show business tradition, the occasion was marked by a two-day party during which 400 bottles of Bollinger champagne were consumed.

Dave Harries, previously with Abbey Road and now consultant to Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios, was one of the first to leave EMI’s employment to join the new venture across town. He would go on to manage the Oxford Street studios for more than two decades. The original four producers were also joined by a host of other top producers and engineers, each bringing in their own work and signings that would add to the success of the studio. These included Chris Thomas, Keith Slaughter, Bill Price, Geoff Emerick, Jon Kelly and John Punter.

“It was one of the noisiest places you could choose to build a recording studio,” says Harries. “When Geoff [Emerick] first showed me the pictures at Abbey Road I said that simply can’t work. It will never work. But work it did! It became so successful that George and John who had built it primarily for themselves couldn’t get in there and had to go back to Abbey Road. We were certainly one of the pioneering independent studios – and among the first to go 16-track. When we opened, our studio rates were £35 per hour.”

Key to success

So why did AIR Studios take off so spectacularly? “The main studio was actually quite large and had a quite live sound,” Harries continues. “The idea was originally that we would do film scoring in there, with the smaller No. 2 studio which had a much drier sounding aspect and was built for pop. They both had basically the same equipment in the control room.

Studio One of the Oxford Street site in 1975

“As it turned out, the main room for a number of reasons, including its great drum sound, got booked out by bands. It just worked. Film people couldn’t get in. We had good equipment and good technicians. We were in the right place at the right time. George once again picked out the right thing. Throughout, he had the Midas touch with artists and with studios, as the hits kept coming on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I recall one occasion when we had The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Dire Straits and Slade booked into the four studios. I walked into reception to see McCartney, Mark Knopfler, Noddy Holder and Mick Jagger deep in conversation. Sadly, a camera wasn’t to hand. But then, we never really boasted about who was here, we just got on with the business of making good recordings.”

Among the sessions at AIR, Harries has fond memories of many – including a young Kate Bush recording what would become her debut album. “Jon Kelly was the engineer and Andrew Powell was the producer and arranger. They were in Studio 2 next to my office when I heard this wonderful sound. It was Kate doing the guide vocal for Wuthering Heights. My hair stood on end. I said at the time it would be massive – and it was.

“Over the years we changed with the times, upgraded the technology as fashion dictated. Despite being ‘lifelong’ Neve supporters, we went with the flow and bought SSL desks. We were at the forefront of digital too.”

That brings us nicely onto AIR Studios Montserrat, one of the pioneering ‘destination studios’ where Dire Straits digitally recorded Brothers In Arms, an album that ranks among the biggest sellers of all time and continues to sell steadily.

“Once AIR Studios in London became a reality and gained a reputation – its reputation of being the finest recording complex in Europe – my thoughts turned to other ideas,” says Martin. He weighed up the pros and cons of building a studio on a ship – until he discovered Montserrat, a small unassuming island paradise in the Caribbean.

In 1977, Sir George fell in love with Montserrat and decided to build the ultimate get-away-from-it-all studio. Opened in 1979, AIR Studios Montserrat offered all of the technical facilities of its London predecessor, but with the advantages of an exotic location.

“Dire Straits recorded Brothers in Arms on the island and at The Power Station in New York and then finished the project in London,” recalls Harries. “That was really the first album where a lot of it was recorded digitally on a Sony 3324 machine.”

Trouble in paradise

Sadly, through the combined efforts of Hurricane Hugo and the local volcano, the studio was forced to cease operations some 10 years after opening.

Back in London, 22 years after the opening of the Oxford Street studios, the lease on the Peter Robinson building expired and the next chapter of AIR’s colourful history began. The studios moved to its present location in the beautiful Lyndhurst Hall in Hampstead, North London.

Heavily involved in the design and building of the new studio facility, Sir George Martin opened AIR Lyndhurst in December 1992 with a gala performance of Under Milk Wood in the presence of HRH The Prince of Wales.

In February 2006, the Strongroom’s Richard Boote announced the purchase of Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios from Chrysalis Group and Pioneer. Since that date AIR Lyndhurst has continued to be one of Britain’s premier scoring facilities, attracting some of the world’s biggest movie scores, as well as maintaining its popularity with major classical labels, high-profile recording artists and incorporating TV post-production facilities.