The most revered pop music of all time is, indisputably, that made by The Beatles. Almost 40 years after they were recorded, their words and melodies are still heard all over the world. Even today, producers and musicians speak of Beatles recordings with awe as they strive for some modicum of the artistic and commercial success achieved by those records. While many recent albums have quickly become dated, The Beatles' records still sound fresh, current and desirable — as shown recently by the chart-topping success of Beatles 1, the 2000 Apple/Capitol Records compilation.
Now, think of The Beatles' greatest later works: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road. Behind the console for all of these milestones was this year's TEC Hall of Fame inductee, Geoff Emerick, an engineer who truly has never been accorded his due respect. The superb songwriting of Lennon and McCartney and the brilliant polish of producer George Martin were, of course, essential elements. But without Emerick's courage, vision and determination, these recordings would have been lesser accomplishments. He pushed the boundaries of recording, doing things that other engineers had either never thought of or never dared to try. He challenged hidebound traditions and rigid administrators, and created perfect sounds, along the way developing ground-breaking techniques that today's engineers invariably take for granted. Simply put, Geoff Emerick brought record engineering into the modern era.
Since those long-ago Beatle days, Emerick has amassed a lengthy roster of credits as both a producer and an engineer. He's worked with The Zombies, Badfinger, Supertramp, Tim Hardin, America, Robin Trower, Jeff Beck and Split Enz, as well as on seminal albums for Elvis Costello (the 1982 release Imperial Bedroom and All This Useless Beauty in 1996). He has also continued to work with Paul McCartney and with Wings on records including Band on the Run, Tug of War and Flaming Pie.
But in an interview the summer before Emerick's TEC Hall of Fame induction, the talk was mostly about The Beatles. Obviously, questions for Emerick could be endless. For more, you'll have to wait for his book.
I guess my first question has to be, “Why you?” How did it happen that you became The Beatles' engineer?
Well, I'd started at EMI as a second engineer when I was 16, right out of school. It was, actually, the same month that The Beatles went in for their artist test. I used to get on well with George Martin, so when I was an assistant, I used to do most of his sessions. Norman Smith, who was The Beatles' original engineer, used to like working with me as well, and we had a great relationship. He taught me some priceless fundamentals that I've never forgotten.
From assisting, I was promoted to mastering — disc cutting. The reason for that was, in those days, to know mastering was to know what you could get on the tape that could actually be transferred to the master. Because, of course, if you overdid the bass end or didn't get the phasing right when you were recording, there were problems.
When The Beatles started, of course, things began to move at a different pace. And then Norman, their engineer, wanted to become a producer. He also wanted to carry on engineering The Beatles, but EMI said, “No way.” As I'd been second engineer on some of The Beatles' sessions and got on well with George Martin, it was decided to promote me to engineer. I was not quite 20, so everyone was aghast at this.
How did it go at first?
Well, I was terrified. For one thing, multitrack wasn't on every session at that time. You had to record straight to stereo — huge orchestras and a singer, the whole bit. And the mixing console had only eight ins and four outs so you had to know what you were doing, because no one's going to spend a fortune putting an orchestra in the studio with you if you don't. The responsibility was absolutely enormous. I was doing Matt Munro, Cilla Black, Manfred Mann — all EMI artists. My first hit was Manfred Mann's “Pretty Flamingo.” And then George Martin approached The Beatles and said, “Here's the situation: Norman's going to leave, and I'm going to suggest that Geoff take over.” And I was called up to the manager's office.
At the time you got the position with The Beatles, were there already signs of you being a bit of a maverick?
Really, it all started when I was mastering. We used to get American records in and wonder how they got the sounds they did. We, of course, were limited to EMI equipment. There was no outside equipment allowed in, apart from a few Altec compressors. If they did bring a piece of equipment in, they took it apart and rebuilt it…just to find out how it worked, I guess.
So we were listening to these records, like the ones from Tamla [Motown], and there was all that extra bass end. And we were always talking about how did they get that sound? Now a lot of it was the musicianship, of course. But there was no one to tell us these things; we had to find out by our own methods.
It was the amount of bass and also the level — the loudness that fascinated us. You see, there were certain things that we weren't allowed to do. There were limitations on how much bass we were allowed to have on, because, in the early days, there had been one particular Beatles single that was mastered and it jumped [skipped]. They'd pressed about a quarter of a million of them and they had to redo them all. After that, for any Beatles single that was cut in England, everyone was instructed to cut all bass below 50 cycles.
You just had to roll it all off.
Yes, and it also had to be two to two-and-a-half dB quieter than any other records. It was ridiculous, but they were selling in those huge quantities, which, of course, had never been done before, and they were afraid the records would jump. Later on, when I was The Beatles' engineer, we had a discussion — which became quite heated — with the manager, myself, The Beatles and George Martin, and it was decided that we would be allowed to cut them louder.
The first album you did with The Beatles was Revolver.
Yes, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the first track.
Of course. They would start with what was to become the most complicated track. Can you describe a bit of what the equipment was like?
The 4-track was remote; in those days, it was never in the control room. We had two 4-track rooms where the tape machines were, and there were three studios, so they had to patch them through. But because of the difficulties of recording “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with the backward things and so forth, where you had to communicate with an intercom to tell the tape op to drop in — which was ridiculous — we requested that the 4-track machines be brought into the control room.
Well, that was just a “no go” area, but eventually they relented. And they sent out six technical staff from the main EMI technical department to supervise the moving of the 4-track machine up the corridor.
There goes the azimuth!
Yes, they were sure the azimuth would go out, it wasn't going to work, all sorts of things…really, it was unbelievable. And the sheer look of horror on their faces as it was lifted over the door threshold!
How would management know if you put too much bass on something?
The mastering engineers would complain to the manager of the mastering department: “Geoff's put too much bass on his tape, and we can't transfer it.” And I used to get reprimanded.
At that time, the producer and engineer weren't allowed in the mastering room.
No. In fact, when I did Sgt. Pepper, I put on the box, “Please transfer flat,” and it just caused chaos. Now I knew, having gone through the mastering stage, what could be done and what couldn't. There was no need to touch the tape, and I wanted just to transfer flat. And also, I wanted to go in there while it was being done. Eventually, I did get special permission to sit in on the mastering. Over time, of course, things gradually changed, and it became the norm to go in with the mastering engineer.
But you really did have to do battle over certain things.
Yes. For example, on Ringo's drum sound, I wanted to move the mic closer to the bass drum. Well, we weren't allowed. I was caught putting the mic about three inches from the bass drum, and I was reprimanded. I said, “Look, this is the bass drum sound we've got, and we don't want to touch it.” And so I was sent a letter, from one of the guys in the office down the corridor, giving permission — only on Beatles sessions — to put the microphone three inches from the drum. They were worried, you see, about the air pressure, that it would damage the mic. There were a lot of things like that.
But what made you think to break the rules?
It was the fact that I was looking for something new and different all the time. The only way that I could do that was to change the way things were done. In fact, one of the first sessions I ever did, with Force West, we did in Number 2 studio, where the strings always went on the hardwood end and the rhythm and brass up on the carpeted end. But I was after a more live rhythm sound, and a different string sound, so I put the strings up on the carpeted end and the rhythm and brass on the hardwood. And it caused all manner of problems. When the next day some of the older engineers found out what I'd done, they said, “You can't do that; we've been doing it this way for all these years.” Other people would set the session up, you see, and they used to just walk in and know where to put everything. Then the engineer would just sit down and away they went. So it was, “If someone else wants to do this, we'll have to do such and such, and we can't have that.” Because, really, they'd had it easy for 10 or 15 years, and if things were changed, people might expect more from them.
I've heard that there was, at that time, a sort of adversarial relationship between engineers and artists.
Well, there were certain rules and regulations. It was very regimented. You weren't allowed to get too close to the artist; you were only supposed to speak to them if they spoke to you. That was very hard. We had to wear collars and ties and make sure our shoes were polished, and we had to get permission to take our jackets off on a session. And to be seen without a tie — forget it. Of course, you were working with classical people, remember, who expected a certain amount of respect.
You have said that you hear in “colors.”
Oh, I do, definitely. The way I approach it is I use what I'm given by the studio like a palette of paints. It's very hard to explain, but I hear visually. I hear certain sounds in different colors. It's really an art form to me. If you start asking me technical stuff, I'm not really that interested; it's like an artist not really wanting to know how the paint was made.
Yet you're quite a technical engineer, especially in the techniques that you developed — close-miking, preamp distortion, backward sounds, automatic double-tracking, tape loops…
It was only out of frustration because The Beatles were quite demanding on the sessions. That's what gave me the fuel to do what I was doing. I couldn't just sit there and leave it; you had to do something different every track — like, “Geoff, we're going to use the piano, but we don't want it to sound like a piano; we're blending the guitar, but we don't want it to sound like a guitar.”
Did you usually have a sound in your head that you were going for?
No, I just built the picture from the textures and colors of what the other instruments were doing — what Ringo was playing on the drums, or the way the other guitar or keyboard sounded, trying to get something from that. Obviously, it was still going to sound like a guitar. But I knew what they were saying; they just wanted that extra little bit of magic to make it sound like a different guitar.
I was given the equipment and used it. Basically, that's what happened. Like triple-compressing a bass or going from one compressor into another compressor and out of that compressor into a limiter, and out of that limiter into another limiter and seeing what happens.
Speaking of compressors, in other interviews you've mentioned Fairchilds quite a bit. What is it about them you like so much?
The Fairchild 660s — it's just a sound they've got that I loved. It's good for specific drum sounds. It's great on electric guitars, and it's great on vocals. That's about it, really.
Do you think there's something to the notion that bigger is better in terms of recording equipment?
[Laughs] Well, that's because it was all tube equipment. All the albums up until Abbey Road were recorded through a tube desk. Abbey Road was the first album that was recorded through an EMI transistorized desk, and I couldn't get the same sounds at all. There was presence and depth that the transistors just wouldn't give me that the tubes did.
That must have been frustrating.
Oh, it was. But, of course, it gave a texture to the Abbey Road album after all, which is quite pleasant. But at first, being used to the tube desk and being confronted with the transistorized desk, it was like chalk and cheese. It was hard. And there was nothing I could do about it except craft the music around it; it was a much softer sort of texture.
When Studer came out with its transistorized multitrack tape machines, we were A/B'ing with an MCI 8-track and the same thing happened. The tape machine just wouldn't produce the same snare or bass drum sound. And, of course, they could never give you an answer — you could only hear it and say to the people from Studer, “Why does it sound this way?”
And they'd run test tones through it and say it was all to spec.
You say you're not technical, but you did have a lot of technical training at EMI.
Yes, and it was superb technical training; it really was. Referring to what I said earlier, to be able to record in straight stereo, with no multitrack backup…
And the quality of EMI's equipment, even to the tape, was excellent.
Oh yes, it was extremely high. When I went to do The Beatles' Anthology, I took some of the tapes out of boxes that hadn't been out for 30 years, and they didn't shed or show much sign of wear at all. Even the tones went straight to zero. It was quite unbelievable. But then, we never had a problem with the tape. Of course, we were never allowed to go back over it.
You used fresh tape for every take?
Yes. That was another one of the rules; we always had to record on virgin tape, because the technical people at the research department said — due to the flux or something — we shouldn't record over.
“Paperback Writer” had a rather unprecedented amount of bass on it.
Yes, and the bass drum also. It was one of the younger mastering guys — Tony Clark, who was a pal of mine — so there was some rapport between us. Whereas before, it would have been, “No.” I also remember the buzz that quickly went around Abbey Road when it became apparent what we had achieved with the sound of a record. People were standing outside the door and listening…It was so different; really it was like seeing the first screening of 2001.
Do you recall the setup for those sessions?
We did it [“Paperback Writer” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”] in Number 3 at Abbey Road, although most of The Beatles' songs were done in Number 2. I think I was miking the toms from underneath as well as on top. And I think I was experimenting with 4038s — which were originally a BBC design and are now made by Coles — on overheads. They're big ribbons; you have to boost the high end. But there was a certain relationship, for some reason on the 4038s, between mixing them in with the close mics that really worked — something to do with the phasing I suppose. When you reversed the phase on the snare mic, it always came as a much bigger, fatter snare sound when you used the 4038s; it had to do with the bottom end on them. And they were also figure of eight, of course, so it was kicking back.
What mic would have been on the bass drum?
I think D20s. But whatever can take the impact of the bass drum. We always used to keep the front skin off of the bass drum and put in cushions and a big weight. That sounds better to me than with the head on and a hole cut in it.
What other mics do you recall using on drums?
There were D19s, which were AKGs, I think; just a cheap talkback mic. AKG always said they were the “throwout” capsules for D20s. Then they came out with the D19C, which had a little vent in the back to help the bass end or something, which never sounded the same, of course. Like Neumanns — the way they progressed up the chain from the 47s and 48s to the 67, which never sounded as good as the 47; and the 87, which didn't sound as good as the 67. They were always trying to prove to you that it did, but it didn't.
Many drummers have said they were inspired by the way the drums you recorded sounded on Beatles records.
It was the presence, I think. No one had heard a bass drum up in your face, sounding as solid as it did. Maybe my approach to recording was magnifying them; I don't know. Getting back to this visual aspect, it was a question of putting into focus various instruments. Whereas before, everything had been sort of a blur. We just pulled everything back into focus.
There'd been very little close-miking done before.
I used to put my ears near things to hear what the makeup of the particular tone was. I would go out and have a good listen and see if there were any places where things sounded slightly different. It's like miking a cymbal on the edge. Have you done that? I put a little condenser on the very edge, and it vibrates and you get this enormous big bottom end — things like that.
Overall, your favorite microphone for vocals was a 47.
Yes, and also for guitars.
And you liked using a microphone in figure-8 pattern on bass.
I used to try to pull the bass out of the track to get its own space and hear it more defined. And one way I tried to do it was to put a tiny bit of chamber echo — well, actually I should say reverberation — on it. I started to do that on Revolver, but Paul could always detect even the slightest amount, and he wouldn't accept it. So I had to be careful.
But when we were doing Pepper, Paul would often overdub his bass after everyone had gone home. It would be just Paul and I and Richard Lush, the second engineer. We'd spend a couple or three hours doing bass parts, and I started using a C12 on figure of 8 about eight or 10 feet away from his cabinet, which I would bring into the middle of Number 2 studio. I'd bring it out into the open from the corner area where it was baffled off because I wanted a bit of the room sound.
For a while, you were monitoring in mono, even for stereo releases.
Stereo was late being introduced in England; we were quite behind the times. Up until Abbey Road, everything was monitored in mono through one loudspeaker, which was hard, but it also helped, because it's easy to get distinctive sounds between guitars if you've got them left and right. But if they're coming from one sound speaker, they merge together and it's a fight to find a place and a tone and an echo for each guitar. And then, of course, when you got it and you switched to stereo, it was wonderful. It's still a good way of putting sounds together.
You have to work harder on it.
Yes, it would take, on the average, two-and-a-half to three hours to work on each sound. We had the luxury; we weren't holding up the session. Most of the tracks were started in the studio, and they would go on for many hours working on the basic rhythm track, which gave us time to work on the sounds.
Of course, we were recording and mixing at the same time because we were still 4-track. So, we were putting the real sounds on the instruments. They weren't going on separate tracks, they were all mixed on to one. That was the finished sound. It wasn't a question of doing it in the mix; that was it, and the rest of the track was built around that sound.
Is it true that the kind of slap you used on John Lennon's voice couldn't be duplicated anywhere else because the EMI tape machines had a different kind of head gap?
You could work it out now, I'm sure. But the head gap between play and record isn't the same on EMI's machines.
I'm confused about how you were doing ADT — Automatic Double-Tracking — back then.
It's funny you should say that, because not long ago, when I saw Jack Douglas, who had worked with John, he said to me, in a humorous kind of way, “How did you do that ADT? I could never get the copy tape to go fast enough to actually lie on top of the original voice like it was double-tracked.”
From his question, I got the feeling the tape was going so fast it was about to go up in smoke; John must have told him you could do it while you were recording, but actually you could only do it when you were remixing. You have to take the signal of the vocal from the sync head. So, you're mixing off the replay head. The sync is in advance, and you put it into another ¼-inch tape machine, then you put that on frequency control and you slow it down. You're not trying to advance it; it's already advanced. You're just slowing it down. The trick is taking it off the sync head.
You were having to devise all of this crazy stuff on the spot: backward bits, phasing with tape machines, loops. Were you having fun?
Looking back, it was great fun, for the most part. There were some moments that weren't, of course — there was a sort of bad period during the White Album. I actually walked out halfway through. It was something like the eighth attempt at “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” They were arguing, and I could see the whole thing disintegrating. I just couldn't handle it anymore. I said to George Martin, “Can I have a word?” And I told him I wanted to leave the sessions. We went to the manager of the studio; it was a Tuesday, and he said, “Well, can you stay till Friday?” And I said, “No.” We went back to the studio and had a discussion with the band, who tried to make me stay. But I said, “No, I've had enough.”
You stayed on at EMI for a while after that. Then what happened? How was it that you came back to makeAbbey Road?
Being so young, I felt I couldn't further myself at EMI; I'd gone as far as I could, and was desperate, really, to leave. Apple [Records] had formed, and Paul asked, “Will you join Apple and do the studio?” I did and built the studio, and during that time, Paul phoned up and said, “We're going to go in and do a new album, would you like to do it?” So I said, “Of course.”
Considering that you were using loops as far back as 1966 (onRevolver), it must amuse you that they are now so prevalent.
A lot of it was that Paul had a couple of Brenell tape recorders at home. You could disconnect the erase head on them, and he used them to make tape loops, putting new recordings over the first. He'd come in with a bag full of them — some long, some very small — all labeled with a grease pencil. We'd lace them up on our tape machine, and people would have to hold them out with pencils. I recall that on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” there weren't enough people in the control room to handle holding them, so we got some of the maintenance department down to help. I think we put five loops up on faders and then just played it as an instrument.
Of course, now you can do anything; it's endless. But often all that doesn't mean anything. If you just press a button and it's there, you haven't really created anything, have you? Anyone can apply this technology. But there's that certain something that you can't put your finger on, something that you give to that piece of recording that the equipment can't. It's something that's in your heart that doesn't come from any equipment whatever. It comes from what you hear.
Being pushed to come up with all sorts of new sounds, to try all sorts of things, did you ever think, “Oh, this will never work.”
Oh, no. Never. Everything was always possible. Nothing is impossible. That was always my theory.
Maureen Droney is Mix's Los Angeles editor.