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British Recording Iconoclast Joe Meek Heard a New World

April 10, 2014
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On 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.

In 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.

Meek 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.

LONDON CALLING

Robert 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.

Meek 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!

Many 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.

But 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.”

Meek 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.
(John Repsch)
 

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

While 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 of sounds.

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”).

Meek was 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.

In addition, 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.”

Kerridge 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 limiting.”

OUTSIDE THE BOX

Changing 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.

Trad-jazz 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.

“It 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

It 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.

The 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 United States.)

SOUND EFFECTS

As 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.

Also 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.
(John O'Kill)
 

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.

That 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.

And 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.

Meek 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.”

Sometimes 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.

The 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.

Now 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

Although 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).

Meek 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.

The 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.

“The 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 sound.”

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 dead.”

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.
(David Peters)
 

MEEK'S MACHINES

When 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.

Those 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 mixers.

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.
(John Cavanagh)
 

PROCESSORS AND MICS

His 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).

Equalizers 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.

Meek's 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.

Because 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.

The 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.

EARLY RECORDINGS

In November of 1962, Meek recorded himself walking around his studio, describing his gear and the way he used it. The following is an excerpt:

“The 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.

“Then, 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.”

Notice 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:

“Sometimes [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.”

Meek 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.

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

Recorded 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.

The song is still impressive, with its sweeping sonic grandeur and otherworldly authority. At the time it was released, however, it was absolutely revolutionary.

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 bled.

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.

It 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.

TELSTAR

“Telstar,” 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.

From 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.

An 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.

If 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.

BTR, TOO

Royalties 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.

According 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.”

Fletcher 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.

A 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.

LAST RIGHTS

In 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.

“On 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.”

LEGACY

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.

Regardless 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

 

 

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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.

But 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.

 
Fig. A
 

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 tape speed.

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.

In 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 garages,and bathrooms.

 
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.

While 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.
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