Unless you were on a remote island somewhere in the last couple months, you can’t have failed to notice that the entire back catalogue of The Beatles, having been remastered and repackaged, was released to a waiting world. Now, I grew up with The Beatles and all the associated music of the 1960s, through Swinging London, The Summer Of Love, Psychedelia, and all that, and it’s deeply ingrained in my psyche, but the lovable lads from Liverpool and their producer and assorted recording engineers were to have a much bigger influence on me than just being a source of background music for my adolescence.
My first Beatles purchase was at the age of 12, “She Loves You,” The Fab Four’s third major hit record of 1963, with one more, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” the song that was to break The Beatles in America. My sister, older and much more in love with the guys than I was, already had the first two records, and in truth, I was off on a different musical tack. I’d already been exposed to Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard through one of my older brothers’ record collection, and I knew about The Big Bopper, Richie Valens, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and other more obscure American R&B artists, as well as the close harmony of groups like The Platters and The Four Seasons. So when I heard the covers on the early Beatles albums, I was only slightly impressed that here were British musicians playing material like Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” The Donays’ “Devil In Her Heart,” and Motown covers in “Please Mr. Postman,” “Money,” and “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” In fact, I didn’t really pay that much attention until the later albums came out, and it became apparent that these were not simply four loveable mop-tops with a Scouser’s sense of humor and a bunch of nice tunes.
At the time, I didn’t know a record producer from the hole in the middle of a vinyl disc, but as I listened to these albums, I realized there was something else going on that made the recordings stand out from the run of the mill pop standards being churned out by all and sundry. What I didn’t know until much later was that advanced production on the early albums was limited by the technique of “bouncing” between two twin-track tape machines, i.e., recording a basic track on one machine and then playing that back while recording a mix of the original and new material onto a second machine. The limitations of this technique meant that the stereo versions of the early Beatles albums were very much an afterthought and tended to be all vocals on one side and the instruments on the other.
At the time of the recording of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” on October 17, 1963, Abbey Road Studios made its new four-track machines available to The Beatles, and things began to change rapidly. The tape machine in question was the Studer J37, one that was to loom large in the legend of Beatles recordings, culminating in the extraordinary orchestral session for “A Day In The Life,” where Abbey Road’s versatile and imaginative chief engineer, Ken Townsend, of whom more later, presented with a challenge by George Martin, synchronized two four-track machines by means of a 50Hz tone recorded on one track of the master machine, amplified to a sufficient level to drive the capstan motor of the second machine. Using this method, they made four separate takes of a 60-piece orchestra, which included my father-in-law to-be Jurgen Hess on violin, in perfect sync with the previously recorded Beatles tracks on the master machine. The resultant sound was unlike anything heard on a pop music record and a legend in the recording world for many years to come. (In 1980, I attended an auction at Abbey Road at which two of the studio’s J37s were on offer. I arrived late from a matinee performance and was just in time to see the second machine being knocked down for a paltry $1,000, which included a copy of a four-track reduction of Sgt. Pepper. Today, they’re worth rather more.)
Starting with Beatles For Sale, the pre-Pepper albums became something of an obsession for me. They were artfully and beautifully produced by Martin and impeccably engineered by Norman Smith, with progressively more and more adventurous techniques being applied as the performers came to realize what the relatively primitive technology could be made to do and thus to start to push the boundaries further and further.
Soon came the songs that ultimately led me to years of experimentation with what could be done with a tape recorder and some pretty crude outboard gear: the guitar feedback that starts “I Feel Fine,” gentle by today’s standards, but a fascinating sound to me then; George Harrison’s volume pedal work, both on “Yes It Is,” the B-side of “Ticket To Ride” and “I Need You” from the Help! soundtrack; and another B-side, “Rain,” with the use of heavy compression on Starr’s powerhouse drumming and the reversed vocal section at the end.
And then there was Revolver.
Revolver, to coin a phrase current at the time, blew my mind; it was a fantastic piece of work, even taking the sing-along “Yellow Submarine,” complete with brass band and miscellaneous sound effects, into account, and it fascinated and intrigued me for years afterward. I can still listen to it today and marvel at how such a complex album was put together with such simple tools.
By now, Smith had moved on and 20 year-old Geoff Emerick took over the engineering chair. It’s generally agreed that Emerick’s major contribution to these sessions, and to the subsequent Sgt. Pepper recordings, was that he had no preconceived ideas about how things should be done and was never afraid to try something different.
At the same time, Townsend and the Abbey Road engineering staff came up with what we now know as ADT, automatic or artificial double-tracking, as a result of Lennon’s hatred of overdubbing his vocals in the normal fashion. It took me years to work out how tape-based ADT worked. Remember, back then there were no books or magazines with “how we did that” articles and no Internet to spread the answer around the world in seconds, and it only happened because a ReVox A77 tape recorder blew a speed control card one day during a session, and I found myself with a recorder running at about 50" per second, presenting me with a split-second delay on the vocal track I was recording.
Almost every track on Revolver had something new on it: the close-miked double string quartet on “Eleanor Rigby,” (my future father-in-law again; if only I’d known!), the backward guitar part on “I’m Only Sleeping,” the Indian influences and instrumentation on “Love You To,” the heavy use of ADT on “Dr. Robert,” the widespread use of vari-speed to change the way vocals and instruments sound when played back at higher or lower pitch, the almost indecently close miking and heavy limiting of the trumpets and saxes on “Got To Get You Into My Life.” All this helped to give the album a sound never heard before, and this is before you even got to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with Lennon’s vocal fed through a hacked-into Leslie speaker and five tape loops by assorted band members being played back in different studios, mixed, and panned in realtime by Emerick and his assistants.
What followed, of course, would eclipse this album. At the same time, Lennon was working on the extraordinary “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and the tracks that would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were already taking shape, but the genesis of the real revolution in what was possible in the recording studio had its roots in Revolver. For me, although the recordings are superb, there’s too much whimsy in Sgt. Pepper, particularly in the immensely saccharine string and harp arrangement of “She’s Leaving Home” and the cloying sentiment of “When I’m Sixty Four,” both of which make it an album that I can’t listen to straight through.
I wore out my vinyl copy of Revolver, then another one, and then a third, and I was still spellbound by the production when I began working in theatre sound. If you listen to nothing else by The Beatles, listen to this album, preferably in stereo and through headphones, and then marvel at the fact this has been achieved using a four-track tape recorder and some fairly basic analog gear. No ProTools, no plug-ins, no digital effects devices, automation, or moving faders—just good old human ingenuity and a huge appetite for experimentation. There’s so much that we now take for granted that came from the work of a small team of engineers who, instead of saying, “You can’t do that,” weren’t afraid to say, “We can work it out,” when a challenge was thrown down. It’s a spirit that I still see in young sound designers and sometimes rather miss in myself these days, which is why I’m sitting down and listening to the sounds that inspired my earliest experimentation all those years ago.
So here’s to the boys in the band and to those in the back room: George Martin, Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick, Ken Townsend, Ken Scott, Richard Lush, Chris Thomas, Alan Parsons, and a few others who all helped to get us started on the magical mystery tour.
John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for over 30 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound.