February 3, 1967, Joe Meek inexplicably murdered his landlady with a
shotgun and then turned the weapon on himself, thus ending a career that
led from promising beginnings to international fame and,finally, to
oblivion. Along the way, Meek had a powerful effect on the British
recording industry, fundamentally changing the way records were made.
the mid-'50s, British recording engineers were, in fact, engineers, to
the point that they wore white lab coats. Producers, on the other hand,
wore suits. Engineers executed standard procedures that were developed
to record sounds with the greatest possible fidelity, whereas producers,
who were charged with making the creative decisions, rarely understood
recording technology. Equally important, both classes of professionals
were employees of large studios and record companies. Truly independent
engineers and producers were unheard of at the time.
changed all that. In the process, he provoked an industry-wide backlash
that is difficult to understand from a modern perspective because most
of his innovations have been so thoroughly absorbed into common practice
that they are hardly noticeable. Besides breaking nearly all the
prevailing audio-engineering rules, he demonstrated that an individual
could engineer and produce million-selling records in a home studio.
Although Meek's gear seems downright primitive now, his studio
techniques can be put to use in today's personal studios.
George “Joe” Meek, born on April 5, 1929, was a precocious child. By
the time he was ten, he had written, cast, and produced theatrical
performances by and for the children in his village, and he had built a
crystal radio set, a microphone, and a single-tube amplifier. At age 14,
he upgraded his rig and worked dances and parties as a mobile DJ; at
16, he acted as musical supervisor and provided sound effects for local
theater groups. In the summer of 1953, he built a disk cutter that he
used to cut his first record, a sound-effects library.
began his professional recording career in 1955, working as an engineer
for IBC, the largest and most advanced studio in London. From 1955 to
1957, he engineered dozens of hit recordings for major British stars,
often adding sonic touches that distinguished them from other pop
recordings of the time. He tweaked the tape recorders to get more level
on tape, placed mics close to sources rather than at the“correct”
distance, and used compressors and limiters for creative rather than
corrective purposes. Perhaps worst of all, Meek sometimes intentionally
distorted preamplifier inputs!
producers resented what they perceived as Meek's challenges to their
authority, but his recordings had a funny way of becoming major hits; at
the end of the day, that's what mattered to the artists and the record
companies. Because so many of Meek's recordings became hits,some
producers, including jazz and world-fusion pioneer Denis Preston,
refused to work with anyone else.
Meek was not happy working within the confines of IBC. The studio
manager and many members of the staff resented Meek's attitude— as well
as his tendency to throw fits when he didn't get hisway — and they
treated him badly. Much of that can be ascribed to professional
jealousy, but it was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that Meek was
homosexual. Of course, that didn't keep the “rotten pigs,” as Meek
called them, from trying to steal his“secrets.”
left IBC in September of 1957 and a few months later helped Preston
found Lansdowne studio. Meek designed a 12-channel mono tube mixer with
EQ on every channel (a luxury at the time), which he had custom built by
EMI/Hayes. Meek also installed EMI TR50 and TR51recorders (see Fig. 1)
and oversaw all of the studio's technical arrangements. The engineers
at IBC called Lansdowne “The House of Shattering Glass” because of its
clarity of sound, and in 1959 it became one of London's first stereo
studios. Meek remained there until November 1959.
Fig. 1: This EMI TR51 was Meek's primary mixdown machine until early 1963.
It had three heads, took reels as wide as 8.25 inches, and ran at 15 and 7.5ips.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
working at IBC and Lansdowne, Meek set a number of precedents in the
English recording studio. Besides being the first to put microphones
close to (and sometimes inside) sound sources, Meek experimented
extensively with microphone selection, which gave him a broader palette
He also worked with
reflective surfaces. For example, he had trumpet sections play against a
cement wall to record early reflections at IBC,and he sometimes used
large movable Lucite panels to liven up the sound of a dead room at
Lansdowne. Other reflective surfaces useful to Meek included those
inside the echo chambers in both studios (see the sidebar “Delay,
Reverb, and Echo”).
the first engineer in the United Kingdom to use compressors to create
pumping and breathing effects rather than merely to control dynamic
range. He also pushed limiters to the max to get the hottest possible
levels on tape and took advantage of analog tape's natural compression
characteristics. It is also likely that Meek was one of the first
engineers to direct inject the electric bass by plugging it straight in
to the mixer.
Meek began experimenting while at IBC with sound-on-sound recording
using two recorders. According to veteran engineer and producer Adrian
Kerridge, who worked with Meek at the time, “He and [producer] Michael
Barclay used to work what they called composites, which they made
track by track by track. What they were in effect doing was multitrack
recording using the composite method. Nobody else to my knowledge in
London, in fact, in Europe— I don't know about America — was working
this way at that time.”
also reports that while at Lansdowne from 1958 through1959, Meek used
two tape recorders to produce flanging, an effect usually considered to
have been developed in the mid-'60s. “It was very successful,” Kerridge
adds, “and we used it a lot, together with expansion, compression, and
OUTSIDE THE BOX
the way individual sound sources were recorded was only one aspect of
Meek's vision. Ultimately, he revamped the entire recording process and
arrived at entirely new ways of working. For example,British pop
recordings made in the mid- to late '50s had a lot of“room” sound.
Microphones were placed away from sound sources, and separation was
achieved by keeping the musicians apart from each other. Meek
close-miked sources, largely eliminating the room sound, and then used
compressor/limiters to tighten up the sounds and give them more punch.
Whatever ambience was lost because of the close-miking technique was
made up for by sending everything to an echo chamber. That basic
concept, though so common now that it's taken for granted, was
considered radical (and wrong) at the time.
trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton's “Bad Penny Blues” is one of the
best-known examples of the way Meek's approach changed the character of
recordings for the better. The song was built around a rolling
boogie-woogie piano bass line and pushed along by a snare drum played
with brushes. Meek compressed the dynamic range of all the instruments
far beyond what was usual for jazz recordings, but he also made the
brushes prominent and intentionally distorted the piano bass line.
was Joe's concept,” says Preston. “He had a drum sound, that forward
drum sound, which no other engineer at that time would have conceived of
doing, and with echo. And Joe created this at a time when I was being
told that the rhythm section should be felt and not heard. He was the
first man to use what they then called distortion. I know what they call
it now — now they build it into gear! And that made a hit out of what
would otherwise have been another track on a jazz EP. It was purely a
concept of sound.”“Bad Penny Blues” made it into the Top 20 on the pop hit parade.
Fig. 2: Meek used a twin-track Lyrec TR16 like this to record two synchronized tracks.
It had three motors and three heads, took reels as wide as 11.5 inches, and ran at 30, 15, and 7.5ips.
INSIDE THE BOX
was during his time at Lansdowne that Meek built his now famous black
boxes. One was a Pultec-style equalizer that Nigel Woodward, its current
owner, describes as “probably the warmest, smoothest, most transparent
equalizer ever made.” Another of his black boxes was a Langevin-style
compressor/limiter, which Kerridge now owns (see the sidebar “Meek's
Black Boxes”). Meek left both units at Lansdowne when he departed.
third and most important black box was a spring reverb unit made from a
broken fan heater. According to Kerridge, “It worked very well, and Joe
was very secretive about it. To my knowledge, this was probably the
first spring echo unit of its kind. It produced a very twangy and
reverberant sound that he used to great effect on many of his
recordings.” (That was a year before Alan Young developed the
Accutronics Type 4 reverb unit for the Hammond Organ Company in the
a young man, Meek became quite skilled at designing original sounds and
at recording unusual sounds from his environment. While at IBC, he put
those skills to good use. When vocalist Anne Shelton recorded “Lay Down
Your Arms,” a song with a military marching beat, the producers wanted
to add the sound of actual marching soldiers. Instead, Meek had Kerridge
shake a box of gravel back and forth, producing the same basic sound.
The record was a massive hit.
while at Lansdowne, Meek began making recordings at his tiny Arundel
Gardens flat. One of those recordings was a full-length LP that employed
several unique recording techniques and featured an extraordinary
variety of original sound effects.
Fig. 3: Meek used this Vortexion WVB recorder for tape delay.
HEARING NEW WORLDS
In 1959 Meek recorded his “Outer Space Music Fantasy” called I Hear a New World. (The original recording was released on CD for the first time as an addition to my Creative Music Production: Joe Meek's Bold Techniques,
originally published by MixBooks in 2001. Previous CD releases
contained a drastically altered version of dubious historical
significance.) The recording was not only made in his apartment but also
recorded in stereo. In addition to engineering the record, Meek
composed all of the music. His musical concepts were arranged by Rod
Freeman and performed by a group called the Blue Men. How Meek was able
to work in stereo remains a mystery, as nobody who was there at the time
recalls seeing any stereo machines, much less a stereo mixer.
largely neglected recording is interesting because it provides
fascinating insights into how an early audio innovator, working at the
dawn of commercial stereo, dealt with issues such as phase
relationships, imaging, and the juxtaposition of dry and processed
sounds. Beyond that, Meek's use of signal processing, tape manipulation,
and tape loops put the record in a class by itself.
then there are the sounds. In addition to bass, drums, and guitar, the
instruments Meek used included a homemade steel guitar, a tube-powered
keyboard called a Clavioline, a piano with thumbtacks in the hammers,
and test oscillators processed in various ways. Meek also used his tape
delay as an instrument by pushing it into self-oscillation with
over-the-top regeneration. Sound effects included bubbles blown through
drinking straws, a comb scraped across an ashtray, shorted electrical
circuits, and milk bottles played with spoons. Meek often processed
sounds as they were recorded. Tapes were processed by changing speeds,
playing them backward, or splicing loops.
wanted to go beyond the static stereo recordings that were being made
at the time, by introducing motion into his mixes. On a promotional
recording made in 1960, Meek remarked, “I've tried — and I've had to do
it rather carefully — to create the impression of space, of things
moving in front of you, of a picture of parts of the moon.”
he did that by panning a sound from one side to the other.He also used
the reverb and echo returns to create motion by panning the dry sound to
one side and the effect return to the other, or by having the processed
and dry sounds on one side, but the effect bleeding over to the other
side. On “March of the Dribcots,” Meek made the sounds “march” from one
side to the other by continuously varying the balance of high and low
frequencies for each sound.
On the title track of I Hear a New World,
Meek used loops and other forms of tape manipulation to great effect.
The core of the song is a repeating three-note bass line that is either a
tape loop or a very steady bassist; the drummer syncs to the bass loop.
The vocal track is sung in rounds of three, with different processing
on each round. Two voices in tight harmony sing the first line. The same
line,with identical phrasing, then repeats with different EQ and
effects.The voices on the third line are sped up to double time so that
they are pitched an octave higher.
phrasing of the sped-up vocal follows that of the other two parts. To
get that effect, the vocalist sang at half speed and time (perhaps at 15
ips) and was recorded onto one machine while listening to the backing
track playing at half speed on another. When the slow track played back
at the higher speed (30ips), it was roughly in sync with the original,
though it was pitched an octave higher. The new track was then
transferred onto the master recorder.
such techniques are used by nearly everyone. But in 1959, they were
truly revolutionary for a pop-music producer to be using.
Fig. 4: This
is one possible configuration of Meek's recording setup. Using two
4-channel mixers and a 3-channel line mixer, he would have been able to
mix eight mics and a DI bass. He also could have added tape delay to two
guitars and a keyboard using the Vortexion WVB recorder and routed the
entire mix to an acoustic echo chamber and back, before recording the
combined signals onto one track of the Lyrec twin-track. Once he had
recorded onto both Lyrec tracks, he could mix the two tracks to one of
his mono recorders.
304 HOLLOWAY ROAD
he couldn't play an instrument, was tone-deaf, and had little sense of
rhythm, Meek had been writing songs and lyrics for years. Les Paul and
Mary Ford had a hit with his “Put a Ring on My Finger.” Meek used the
money he received from that to co-found Triumph Records, one of
England's first truly independent pop record labels, in 1960. Besides
producing albums, Meek acted as A&R man,choosing — and in some cases
managing — the artists and bands that he recorded (a practice that
continued long after Triumph's demise).
resigned from his position with the label after only nine months and
formed a partnership with a film company owner who helped bankroll a new
recording studio. Meek located the studio in a three-level flat above a
leather shop on a busy street in a bleak section of north London. He
lived and worked at 304 Holloway Road for the rest of his life.
studio was on the third floor and could be reached only by climbing
several steep flights of narrow stairs. The stairs are nearly as
legendary as the studio itself: musicians who angered Meek were
routinely thrown down them, followed by their gear. The recording
area,which measured approximately 18 by 14 feet, was at the front of the
building, with two large windows overlooking the street.
The11-by-12-foot control room had no direct view of the recording
area;Meek had to run back and forth between the two rooms to communicate
with the musicians.
studio windows were insulated, and then boards were nailed over them and
acoustic tile and drapes [were placed] over the boards,” says Dave
Adams, who helped prepare the studio.“We heard very little outside
Meek described the
studio as being “the size of an average bedroom. No larger. I've covered
the walls with acoustic tiles …all the walls except one, which is
covered with a thick curtain. This has very good absorbing power, and
the studio is extremely dead. The floor is carpeted, and the ceiling is
completely covered in tiles. One wall has some tiles missing, and this
gives me a certain amount of brightness. But basically it's completely
Meek also claimed that
he had converted a small room directly above the control room into an
echo chamber. Unfortunately, nobody can corroborate the story.
Nonetheless, the sound of an echo chamber can be heard clearly on nearly
every recording made at 304 Holloway Road, so a room was used for that
purpose — very likely the bathroom. In fact, sometimes Meek had
vocalists sing in the bathroom to get an echo sound.
Fig 5: Joe Meek circa 1966 in the control room at 304 Holloway Road. Equipment shown includes the EMI BTR2 (bottom left), the Astronic EQ, and the Ampex PR10 recorder (directly behind Meek).
In the rack (from top to bottom) are an unidentified rack unit, the Altec 438A compressor,
Meek's homemade mixer, the Vortexion 4/15/M mixer, two Quad preamps, the Fairchild
658 spring reverb unit, and several patch panels.
trying to determine the gear that Meek used at 304 Holloway Road, it is
important to remember that during a period of six years,lots of
equipment that was not documented may have been used in the studio. In
addition, simply knowing what gear was present in the studio doesn't
necessarily offer much insight into the Meek sound, because he modified
practically everything that he owned.
two points notwithstanding, two documents throw quite a bit of light on
the subject: an RGM Sound (Meek's production company) equipment list
showing capital expenditures for equipment during the period from
September 19, 1960, to May 12, 1964, and an auction manifest of
equipment compiled after Meek's death. A handful of photos of the studio
control room taken at various times show important pieces of gear.
When the studio opened in 1960, Meek's main recorder was a Lyrec TR16 twin-track (see Fig. 2),
an extremely high-quality Danish-made machine widely used within the
film industry. It ran at7.5, 15.0, and 30.0ips and accepted reel sizes
as wide as 11.5 inches,including cine spools. A stock TR16 did
not have synchronized record and playback heads (an overdub on track 2
would therefore be out of sync with track 1), but Meek modified his
machine for that purpose.Meek also had two EMI recorders: a two-head
TR50 and a three-head TR51,both full-track mono machines. By late 1962,
he had added a three-head Vortexion WVB, which he used to produce tape
delay (see Fig. 3).By early 1963, he'd acquired EMI BTR2 and Ampex Model 300 professional full-track recorders.
In the earliest days, Meek's primary mixer was a 4-channel homemade device with variable top lift
(a British term for high-frequency boost) on each channel. Small line
mixers were also used to sum line-level feeds from various sources. By
September of 1962, Meek had added a broadcast-quality Vortexion 4/15/M
4-channel mixer. Together,the two units provided a total of eight
high-quality mixer channels— four with EQ — that could be combined in
various ways.Although he added a 6-channel stereo mixer in late 1964,
most 304 Holloway Road recordings were made using the two 4-channel mono
Meek also had several
preamplifiers with multiple inputs that he used as auxiliary mixers.
Included was a modified RCA Orthophonic hi-fi preamp/filter unit that he
referred to as his cooker. The Orthophonic provided three
inputs, had simple tone controls, and could be easily overdriven into a
smooth and musical distortion. The device was most often used to fatten
up lead vocals, but it also served as a backing vocal submixer (see Fig. 4).
At some point, Meek also acquired RCA and Dyna preamps, which he could
have used to add inputs or tone coloration when necessary.
Fig. 6: Meek used this Ampex PR10 stereo recorder for various purposes, including tape delay.
PROCESSORS AND MICS
selection of outboard gear was quite limited. At first Meek had only a
few dynamics processors, including a 30-year-old BBC limiter and a
homemade compressor. In February 1963, he acquired Altec 438A and436B
compressors, and by September he added several Fairchild dynamics
processors: a Model 660 limiting amplifier, a Model 663 compact
compressor, a Model 661 Auto Ten, and a Model 673 Dynalizer. He obtained
a second Model 673 four months later and a Model 655 after that. Around
1966 Meek also acquired a Fairchild 658 professional spring reverb,
which is pictured in photographs of his control room from that period
(see Fig. 5).
were equally scarce. In early 1963, the selection in Meek's possession
was limited to a tone-control unit and a midlift control, both probably
homemade. According to Ted Fletcher, who worked with Meek in 1963 or
1964, some of Meek's other EQs were “things in tobacco tins, with little
inductors and capacitors soldered together.” Meek also added EMI 843
and 844 passive equalizers and an IBC CU-3H active equalizer to the
studio at some point.
main microphones were two Neumann U 47s, which he used primarily on
vocals; six AKG D 19/60 dynamics for instruments; and two Reslo ribbon
mics — one for vocal groups (working both sides of it) and a heavy-duty
model for kick drum. He also had a Neumann SM 2stereo condenser (which
broke continually), and HMV 235CH and Western Electric ribbon mics that
he used less frequently. By the end of his career, Meek had added
Telefunken NSH, Elam models 250 and 251, Beyer models M61 and M23, and
RCA variable impedance and dynamic microphones.
he was creating mono mixes, Meek monitored on a single Tannoy Red, a
popular reference speaker used in recording and broadcast studios
throughout Britain and Europe. The Red employed Tannoy's dual-concentric
speaker design: in this case, a high-frequency driver mounted at the
center of a 15-inch woofer. Meek powered the system using
audiophile-quality Quad preamps and power amps.
wires that connected Meek's gear snaked across the floor or were
suspended in midair. Many, if not most, of the wires had no plugs on the
ends; Meek just twisted the wires together. But cables weren't the only
things that covered the floor: tape boxes were piled everywhere,and
discarded bits of edited tape reportedly rose to ankle height.
November of 1962, Meek recorded himself walking around his studio,
describing his gear and the way he used it. The following is an excerpt:
main machine is a Lyrec [TR16] twin-track. I usually record the voice
on one track and the backing on the other. The other recorder is [an
EMI] TR51; this I use for dubbing. The artist has his microphone, a
[Neumann] U 47, in the corner of the studio, screened off from the rest
of the musicians. He can sing his heart out without anyone taking notice
of him. He's going on a separate track [of the Lyrec]. The bass is fed
in direct, the guitars have microphones in front of their amplifiers,
[and] the drum kit has two or three microphones placed around it.
I dub the artist's voice on again. I listen to the tracks that we've
already got. … Sometimes they're good enough,but as a rule, [the
vocalist] wears headphones and the track's played back to him, and it's
dubbed onto my TR51. So we have voice and rhythm tracks.”
that Meek does not record the voice onto the second track of the Lyrec,
as he had the guide vocal cut at the same time as the rhythm track.
Instead, he mixes it in real time with the rhythm track from track 1 of
the Lyrec, straight to the EMI TR51, saving a generation of track
bouncing. Meek continues:
[we] use four strings, never any more: four violins, perhaps a French
horn, and a harp. Sometimes a choir, perhaps three girls. The method I
use for recording strings is to have a microphone pretty close to them.
The four of them sit [in opposing pairs], and then I delay the signal
with the [third] head of the Vortexion. I feed this back in again, which
adds a reflection that gives you eight strings. On this I put my
echo-chamber sound and also some of my electronic echo. After I've
finished, I've ended up dubbing from my TR51 onto [one track of] the
Lyrec. [And after recording the orchestra on the Lyrec's second track] I
have the extra orchestra on one side, and the voice and the [rhythm]
track on the other. And that's all I do at my premises. I then edit out
the best takes, [and] go along to IBC and mold them together.”
was fanatical about separation, as difficult as it was to achieve in
his Holloway Road flat. When miking guitar amps (which were usually Vox
AC30s), he'd place an AKG D 19 right against the grille and then throw a
heavy blanket over it. Similarly, he'd place a Reslo ribbon mic in
front of a bass drum and put a heavy blanket over it,taped to the toms.
The latter technique became commonplace a few years later, but Fletcher
and others believe that it originated with Meek.
made hundreds of recordings during his first couple of years at304
Holloway Road, but two of them are particularly significant:“Telstar”
and “Johnny, Remember Me.”
JOHNNY, REMEMBER ME
in middle 1961, “Johnny, Remember Me” is considered by many to be
Meek's most impressive recording, and it was also his first No. 1 hit.
The record was a death disc about a guy who hears his dead
lover's voice calling to him from across the moors. Meek's seance-loving
partner, Geoff Goddard, claimed that spirits helped him write the song.
In fact, Goddard and Meek believed that regularly they were visited and
assisted by the spirit of Buddy Holly.
song is still impressive, with its sweeping sonic grandeur and
otherworldly authority. At the time it was released, however, it was
When interviewed for the Meek documentary on the BBC program Arena,
vocalist John Leyton remembered the session this way:“When I recorded
‘Johnny, Remember Me,’ I was in the sitting room behind a little screen,
and the rhythm section was in the room with me. The violin section was
on the stairs, the backing singers were practically in the loo, and the
brass section was underneath, on another floor altogether. And there was
Joe next door, playing his machine like another musical instrument. It
was quite bizarre. We did it over and over. Joe wanted plenty of
exciting atmosphere in it, and it was a really exhilarating sound with
the galloping, driving beat.[Joe] was getting all excited, slapping his
leg and combing his quiff.” Elsewhere, guitarist Reg Hawkins relates how
they had to play the track repeatedly for an hour, after which his hand
Brass and strings may
be on the recording, but if so, they are hard to distinguish. The
predominant instruments are the acoustic and electric guitars, bass,
hi-hat-driven drums, and either a harp or a sped-up piano. Other sounds
emerge in some places, but they are mostly washes of sustained tones
with little harmonic definition. Meek combined and submixed the sounds
in the same way that a synthesist layers patches from several
synthesizers and treats them as one sound.He brought the sound cluster
in and out as it suited him. He also added fairly long delays on a few
keywords here and there, which at the time was quite novel.
is estimated that “Johnny, Remember Me” has more than30 tape splices.
Unless they were of the rhythm tracks, Meek probably bounced vocal
overdubs to blank tape (along with the backing track)until he had enough
usable bits to work with. Then, when he edited the best parts together,
the rhythm tracks already would be in sync, making it more difficult to
detect the splices.
inspired by the satellite that ushered in the telecommunications age,
was Meek's biggest hit. It spent two weeks at the top of the U.S. charts
in December 1962 and reached similar heights throughout the world.
a recording perspective, “Telstar” is fascinating.It has so many
overdubs that the underlying layer of sound,particularly in the low mid
frequencies, is little more than a sonic blur. There are several drum
parts, two bass parts, a triple-tracked Clavioline (spanning three
octaves), a sped-up piano playing harp-like arpeggios, and a gorgeous
solo guitar during the breaks.
abundance of speculation has surfaced regarding the sound effects that
open and close “Telstar.” One common theory is that Meek recorded a
flushing toilet and then reversed the tape, but if you play the record
in reverse, you will not hear any obvious flushing sounds. What you will
hear are sounds reminiscent of those found on I Hear a New World, which were almost certainly produced the same way.
you have ever plugged a microphone into a tape echo and cranked up the
regeneration while making plosive and other vocal sounds, you'll
recognize much of what you're hearing on “Telstar.” Meek ran the source
sounds — whatever they were — through a spring reverb and a tape delay,
with the tape regeneration set so high that it went into
self-oscillation. You mostly hear the sound of the oscillating tape
delay and not the source sound. He also captured a spring sound by
knocking on his reverb device, and a tapping sound probably produced by
tuning a pair of test oscillators close enough tot he same pitch to
cause beating. Those sounds were edited together and then reversed by
turning the tape around.
from “Telstar” provided Meek with enough money to buy some impressive
new gear. He was unable to get satisfactory results mixing the Lyrec's
two tracks down to mono on the TR51. As a result, he purchased an EMI
BTR2 professional full-track recorder in February 1963. Having two pro
machines to work with made signal degradation from track bouncing much
less of a problem, letting him modify his recording technique.
to guitarist and recording engineer Peter Miller, who worked with Meek
then, “[Meek] only had two machines. He would very often get the band
recorded onto the Lyrec, which was usually his first machine. He would
put the band on one track and put the vocal on the second track. The
vocal track would also include maybe a guitar track or solo sax or
something else — whatever lead instrument wasn't playing at the same
time as the vocal. And then he would mix that onto his EMI BTR2 mono
1-track. And at the time that he'd do the mix, he would add on anything
else that he wanted — either another track or effects processing.”
describes a modified version of the same technique.“The technique he
used most of the time while I was there was to lay down the backing
track on the full track of the BTR2 so that the recording occupied the
full quarter-inch in mono,” he says.“He would then remove the tape and
put it on to the Lyrec machine, where he would erase one half. There
would still be the original backing track on the one half of the tape,
and he would add tot hat either the lead voice or backing vocal on the
other half of the track. He would then mix the backing track and the
vocal track together live while he was recording another part and send
the three elements back to the BTR2, in mono on full-track. If he had
everything he wanted by then, he would do a final mixdown with
additional compression and EQ.” In both cases, Meek might add an
additional track in real time as he mixed down to mono, with additional
processing at any point long the way.
month after getting the BTR2, Meek purchased an Ampex Model 300,
another professional full-track mono machine. Having two pro full-tracks
gave Meek increased recording options. For example, by bouncing between
them, he could build up a rhythm track using the full width of the tape
and only have to go to half-width (on the Lyrec) once. Meek also
purchased an Ampex 351/2 twin-track at some point,giving him 2-track
bouncing capabilities, and an Ampex twin-track emipro model called a
PR10 (see Fig. 6). It is rumored that Meek also had an Ampex multitrack in 1966, but the evidence is inconclusive.
1964 Meek had his final No. 1 U.K. hit with “Have I the Right?” by the
Honeycombs (featuring female drummer“Honey” Lantree). The tune went to
No. 4 in the United States and topped the charts in Australia, Japan,
South Africa, and Sweden. “Have I the Right?” is best known for
its“stomping” gimmick. To generate a really big kick-drum sound, Meek
placed microphones below the wooden studio stairs and had several
musicians stomp along in time with the music. But that wasn't all.
the final mix of ‘Have I the Right?,’ we were just sort of tickling it
up and getting the master ready with Joe late one evening,” Fletcher
recalls. “The ‘come right back’ line still wasn't heavy enough for him.
He tried all sorts of things to get this right: we kicked cardboard
boxes, hit cardboard boxes with sticks, and in the end, he said, ‘No,
Guy [Fletcher's brother], it's not loud enough. What you've got to do is
this.’And he put an AKG D 19 microphone on a little short stand on the
floor and gave a tambourine to my brother and said, ‘Hit the microphone
with the tambourine.’ So my brother gently tickled the microphone, and
Joe said, ‘No, no — hit it, hit it, hit it!’ During the takes, my
brother was smashing this tambourine onto the top of the microphone so
hard that he completely destroyed the microphone and the tambourine.
There's a horrible cracking noise on the record, and if you listen
carefully, you can hear it.”
is commonly held that Meek was a casualty of the British Invasion and
that he got further and further out of touch as the '60s progressed.
Critics point out that he had practically no hits in 1965 and '66,
suggesting that the music simply wasn't up to par. That may be true
generally, though he made some extraordinary recordings during that
period, many of which were never released.
of how you assess the value of Meek's later recordings,another factor
must be considered when pondering his demise: Meek was a textbook
paranoid schizophrenic, and his condition worsened significantly toward
the end of his career. He believed that almost everyone was out to get
him. He also was subject to wildly erratic mood shifts, including
violent outbursts that eventually made successful interactions with
others nearly impossible for him. Apparently, when Meek pulled the
trigger on that fateful February morning in 1967, he believed that he
had run out of options.
Barry Cleveland is the author of Joe Meek's Bold Techniques,
the Second Edition of which is available in hardcover print and eBook
editions. Cleveland is also a guitarist, composer, and recording
engineer, and currently serves as an associate editor at Guitar Player magazine. barrycleveland.com
LISTENING TO MEEK
Nearly all of Joe Meek's
major recordings were mixed to mono. Nowpeople tend to think of mono as
the same sounds coming out of the rightand left speakers with no stereo
separation, but Meek mixed usingone speaker. Remember that,
during Meek's entire career, mostpeople listened to music on one
speaker. Meek's records were targetedlargely to teens, most of whom
listened on inexpensive phonographs andeven less expensive transistor
radios. So if you want to hear therecordings the way they were intended
to be heard, you should listen tothem on a single speaker.
don't listen to a Meek record through a cheap speaker. Althoughmost
people at that time listened on inexpensive systems, Meek mixedusing a
Tannoy Red driven by a Quad preamplifier and power amp combo,all of
which were state of the art at the time. The best way to gleanhis intent
is to listen to his recordings using the highest-qualityspeaker
available — preferably a studio monitor with a flatfrequency response.
DELAY, REVERB, AND ECHO
The terms delay, reverb, and echo are often usedinterchangeably when describing Joe Meek's sound. However, theyindicate three distinct effects.
Delay in the '50s and early '60s meant mechanical delay. It wasachieved most commonly by using a three-head tape recorder (see Fig.A1).
A three-head machine has a gap between the record and playbackheads.
Consequently, if the playback head is on at the same time that asound is
recorded onto the tape, there is a short delay while the tapetravels
from one head to the other. The delay time is adjusted bychanging the
Reverb was not a common audio term in the 1950s. By the early '60s,the term had largely come to mean spring reverb (see Fig. A2).(Plate-reverb
technology had been developed by the late '50s, but noevidence suggests
that Meek had access to it.) Spring-reverb units aredevices with
transducers connected to the ends of a group of springs.Sound passes
through the springs and comes out the other side slightlydelayed, with a
characteristic spring sound.
the late '50s and early '60s, echoes were produced using an
echochamber, which was a highly reflective room with a speaker on one
sideand a microphone on the other (see Fig. A3). Sound was sent
tothe echo chamber by amplifying it and playing it on the speaker.
Themicrophone picked up by the sound as it echoed around the room and
thenreturned to the mixer, blending with the original, dry sound. Any
spacewith reflective surfaces could be converted into an echo chamber,
andad hoc chambers were created from stairwells, closets, parking
Fig. B: These are two of Meek's so-called black boxes: the Langevin-based
compressor/limiter (top) and the Pultec-based equalizer.
(Adrian Kerridge/Peter Chadwick)
MEEK'S BLACK BOXES
Meek built several pieces of gear that eventually became known asthe black boxes,
the most famous of which was a spring-reverbunit. Meek reportedly
constructed the reverb unit from a brokenHMV-manufactured fan heater
during late 1958 or early 1959. He kept theunit taped up and carried it
with him so that no one could examine itand discover how it worked. Meek
put the unit through several revisionsas he experimented with different
types of springs and perfected theelectronics.
at Lansdowne, Meek also built a compressor/limiter based onLangevin
designs and circuitry and a black-box equalizer based on thePultec model
(see Fig. B). Nigel Woodward, who now owns theunit, describes
Meek's equalizer as “probably the warmest,smoothest, most transparent
equalizer ever made.”
This story originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of Electronic Musician.