Lunching With Bonzai | Geoff Emerick

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Twenty-five years ago, The Beatles rocked the world with a daring album that shook the foundations of pop music. "It was like writing a novel," recalls Paul McCartney, "instead of looking for catchy singles."

Indeed, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was much more than just a collection of songs-it was a concept album of interwoven material and provocative sound effects. The album sleeve was among the first to feature printed lyrics, and it was also one of the first to have a gatefold, in this case emblazoned with a portrait of the band in their self-created alter egos. Today, Sgt. Pepper still stands among the most memorable works in the annaIs of recorded music. It's certain that George Martin will be remembered as one of the most influential producers in history and Geoff Emerick as the engineer who helped shape the modern art of recording.

Emerick joined the staff at EMI in 1962 and first worked with The Beatles as second engineer under Norman Smith in 1963. On April 6, 1966, he began his work as first engineer. The song was tentatively titled "Mark I," eventually becoming "Tomorrow Never Knows." The album, Revolver, was the first of Emerick's Beatles albums, followed by Sgt. Pepper (Grammy/Best Engineer), Magical Mystery Tour; Yellow Submarine, The Beatles ("The White Album") and Abbey Road.

Emerick's producing and/or engineering credits also include Badfinger, The Zombies, Jeff Beck, America, Split Enz, Supertramp, Elvis Costello and Kate Bush. He's engineered a number of McCartney albums, including Band on the Run, Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, Flowers in the Dirt and, most recently, Unplugged.

Let's join Emerick now in the garden outside his home in the hills above Los Angeles...

You were partners with George Martin and John Burgess in AIR studios on Montserrat?
Yes, and my wife and I bought a house on the island-such a paradise. We worked there for seven or eight years, and then the hurricane hit; had to rebuild our house.

If making a record is like building a house, what is the foundation?
The foundation is obviously the band. The cement and mortar would be the bass player and the drummer. When I left school and entered this business, I was taught by Norman Smith, who was the original Beatles engineer. He always said that the basic backbone is the bass and drums. If that tightness and feeling are there, then you can build anything.

How about the framing?
That's up to discussion. How much will the producer play in the framing? What is he offered, and what is he allowed to do? In the early days, the producer actually picked the material, the arranger, the musicians and so forth. Nowadays, you may have to put some cement in, and take a brick out here and there.

Framework would probably come down to the song itself, and the melody. While I was learning, I was always told that you could put a couple of microphones out in the studio, and if the song and the feel were there, you could record a hit. A lot of the hits in the early '60s were done like that. There was nothing clever in it. Stick a couple of mics out there and start recording.

You took over from Norman Smith on Wednesday, April 6, 1966. You were 20 years old.
You've been studying the official Beatles Sessions book-yes, that would be correct. I'd started at EMI in 1962, the same month that the Beatles went in for their recording test. I was a second engineer, which meant that you just operated the tape machines. I believe my first session as a second with Norman was for "She Loves You." And then I did a lot of Manfred Mann records with him.

The reason I was named as the Beatles' engineer was because Norman wanted to become a producer. I got along well with George Martin because I could keep my mouth shut. As a first engineer with the Beatles, I started with Revolver.

You were previously working as a disc cutter?
Well, that was part of the training. You were second engineer, which meant that you didn't plug in leads or anything. You polished the tape machines, made sure there was tape ready, wrote out the information on the tape boxes, pressed the record button and so forth. It's not like today, where a second does so much more.

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My promotion from that position was to cut playback lacquers, because there were no cassettes back then. For instance, if a band like The Shadows were recording, perhaps three or four tracks in a night, the following morning you would have to cut listening discs of each song, manually.

A step up from there would be mastering. I was told that maybe when you were 40 years old, you might become a recording engineer. I was only 17 when I started, and this gave pause for thought, but things began to change drastically.

You were well known for getting a lot of material on vinyl. Did your disc-cutting background help you in this?
It was incredible training. If we were recording something and watching the meter and there was one funny thing that went one-and-a-half dB in the red, you knew that your entire album would end up one-and-a-half dB quieter. You had to work around the limitations.

You were known for being able to get more bass than just about anyone. You used the ATOC-Automatic Transient Overload Control?
That would be an Abbey Road invention, a synthetic device that felt out the bass frequencies, which were the hardest range to get on record. If it registered that you were down to 30 cycles, it would obliterate the 30 and lift it up to 50. It was basically a filter box.

There were certain directives from EMI that were a challenge, you see, because of uncomfortable occasions early on with the Beatles. When cutting a master record, you really had to work on the bass. EMI was afraid the records would come back-on one occasion two million records came back. I think "Please, Please Me" was rejected because the needle jumped. From then on we had to slash all the bass.

There was an incredible amount of product that was actually pressed. The directive would come back to us to slash all the bass below 60 cycles, with filter boxes, no matter what tape we were given. At that time, we were listening to American records, especially the Motown stuff, and knew they cut at twice the depth, but EMI was like the BBC. It was like fighting a body of people that would not change their ways from the past.

Do you feel that limitations can sometimes be a challenge that enhances creativity?
You couldn't put forward a better question. I would go into the studio and sit on a chair while Ringo played, listening to the tonalities. You know the microphones that can enhance, or capture, the different tones you are hearing. It was a challenge, and there were certain things I couldn't do. I had to find other ways to make it work.

It made it harder for me, but with the Beatles we weren't under too much pressure; we had all the time we wanted. If it was a complete session with another artist, like Cilia Black, we'd do three tracks in the morning, three tracks in the afternoon, three in the evening, three the following morning. Vocal overdubs afternoon and evening. Mix it and you'd he done in a few days. With those time constraints there were certain things you could do and couldn't do.

With Ringo's drum sound, you were miking much closer than had ever been done before. And it's said you stuffed the famous four-headed sweater in the drum and sent the signal through a Fairchild 660 tube limiter?
Yes, that's true. To get that sound, I'd first go down and listen to Ringo's drums. Put my ear next to the top skin, or to the bottom, looking for the resonance from the skins. We took the bottom skins off the tom-toms, and put the mic up inside. This gave us the slap of the top, with no resonance of the bottom skin-what a thought. In my opinion, Revolver was the album to change all sounds. Better than Pepper from a sound point of view.

Prior to that, you probably found one overhead mic, one bass mic and one snare mic on the drums. Recording mixers only had eight inputs, so we didn't have enough feeds into the board to do much more. We built little pre-mixers and had all sorts of stuff going on.

Was "Tomorrow Never Knows" the first song to use tape loops?
For the Beatles, yes, but I believe George Martin had used tape loops before-probably on a Goon Show album or a Spike Milligan record. Basically, that was our first use of a primitive "synthesizer." Each of the Beatles had their own Brennell tape recorders to play around with, and you could actually block off the erase head on those machines. The tape could pass the record head without it being wiped.

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Engineered by Geoff Emerick on Jan. 20, 1967, this 15 ips, 4-track master from "Day in the Life" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," was recorded on EMI brand tape.

If Paul wanted to play a guitar through it, he could build up a strange new sound. He knew that if you recorded on the loop more than a few times, without the erase head connected, you would whack the original sound. You had to do it quite quickly to get the image you wanted. If you went on too long you'd just get a mess.

That seagull sound on "Tomorrow Never Knows" was just a looped guitar strum, but when we put the loop backwards that's what it sounded like. You have to remember that our tape machines then were about three feet wide and four feet high, and we had to put one loop on each machine. For that song, we must have used about eight machines. You had to lace up the machine, and then hold the loop out with a pencil to keep it going around. We had the engineers from the maintenance department just holding the loops, and then we put the feeds on faders. You just played the tune, and because we knew which loops had which notes you could just blend them in.

Are we going to hear more recordings from that period?
My wife, Nicole, and I worked on the famous Beatles Sessions album, which has been bootlegged. It was going to be an issue from EMI, with lots of outtakes. We worked on that in Montserrat. but there was never final permission to release it. The album does exist, with a really good alternate version of "My Guitar Gently Weeps." It was a good album, and one day I'm sure it will be issued.

Have all the original BeatIes tapes been archived on digital?
Yes. The original master tapes sit in tins, you know. But they have been transferred. The textures and tonal qualities on the CDs, though, are so different that they don't even resemble the original records.

One of your last Beatles sessions as engineer was for "The Ballad of John and Yoko, " which was also the first Beatles stereo single in Britain. It's interesting that it was only John and Paul playing, because Ringo was making a film and George was out of the country.
Yes. that session was put together in about two days. Malcolm Davies, the cutting engineer at Apple, phoned up and told me he couldn't believe that track. We were always into the sounds, the top on the snare, the bass. Malcolm used to work at EMI and Abbey Road, and then at Apple, and when he got the tape, he couldn't believe the sound on the snare. I had used a different mic on the snare for the first time, because it lent itself to the sound of that record. It was an AKG KM-56, a condenser, which I had never done before.

Since you worked mainly with 4-track machines with the Beatles, did you have to do a lot of ping-ponging?
Some, but not a lot. I was talking with George Martin, and he was recently listening to some of the old tapes. He couldn't believe what we were actually laying down on one track-bass, drums, guitar, voices with and without echo. It was just live recording, with all the finished embellishments. That's the way we worked.

What about all the rumors that the Beatles were putting subliminal messages on their records?
Nonsense, not true.

It seems to me that it was Revolver where all the Beatles' weirdness began.
Revolver was the first album I'd engineered. It was, "well, Geoff's the engineer. We don't want the piano to sound like a piano. We don't want the guitar to sound like a guitar, and we don't want the drums to sound like drums." This was mainly coming from Lennon.

Was this irritating at all?
Not really-it was a challenge. That's when we started using the Leslie speaker. When we first put a voice and a guitar through those speakers it made the most amazing sound ever. It was so tuneful and melodic. Wow, let's make a whole album of this! We were creating all these sounds without magic boxes. All the plug-in boxes now are derived from what had to be done mechanically, or by stretching tapes, or chopping tapes up, slowing tapes down.

Is it true you actually had John suspended from the ceiling, swinging around for a vocal?
It was his idea, but it didn't really work out. He'd gone through a funny stage at that time. We'd put the voice through the Leslie, and the speaker revolved around. I think he once asked George if he could just plug a voice feed from himself and swing around from the ceiling to get a similar effect. George explained that he would have to have an operation to put a voice box in his throat and have a jack plug attached to his neck.

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One of the Studer J37 1-inch 4 tracks used on Sgt. Peppers.

You and George Martin must have spent a lot of time together on your side of the glass, observing the antics.
Yes, a lot, but the antics weren't too bad, really. Experimentation and playfulness went into the making of those records, which you don't find a lot of now.

Were you part of the raids on the tape libraries for "Revolution 9"?
Oh yes.

Were you actually taking library tapes and cutting them up?
It wasn't as bad as that. We were just taking tapes from the EMI sound effects library. You were allowed to use the tapes, and we did.

Abbey Road was your final album with the Beatles...
Yes, and that was the first time we used a transistorized recording console. EMI made it, and at that point I could not re-create the bass drum or snare drum sounds, guitar sounds. Previously I had used tube consoles and tube tape machines. And then we got the new batch of Studer tape machines, which were half-tube and half-transistor.

If you listen to "Paperback Writer," a good example, you really hear the kick of that bass drum. There was no way you could re-create that through a transistorized desk. There are many theories-unnatural harmonics, distortion, whatever-but we couldn't create those sounds anymore. The new desk was a lot smoother, a lot mellower, which gave Abbey Road its texture. It's still a great album.

Let's talk about some of your recent projects-the McCartney Unplugged project for MTV, which was also released as an album. What technical tools did you employ?
Well, it was very simple. First of all, Paul phoned up and asked if I would like to work on this MTV acoustic project-mics into desks and so forth. There is one particular mixing console I really like, the old API board. Record Plant's remote truck had one, and we used it for the America albums here in Los Angeles. There's another in a mobile truck in England-it still sounds so clean and so good. Paul wanted to rehearse at his studio for three days. I suggested that we do that with the mobile, get all the sounds and EQ, and just go down to the television studio in London with the truck and away we go. That's what we did.

There were no overdubs. We took it down to multitrack, and also to DAT. The actual issued album came from the DAT.

You were pleased with the results?
Sure I was-sounds superb. It meant, of course, doing all the echoes at the right time, and taking them off. I wasn't under any great direction from Paul; just do it. What you hear on the album is exactly as he sang it. No overdubs on vocals or instruments.

What vocal mic did you use?
I used an AKG 414. I wanted to use a U47, but it was too big for the camera, and it's prone to cutting out due to condensation.

Of all the sounds you came up with for the Beatles, is there any one that you are especially proud of?
I guess it would be "A Day in The Life." The gradual long fade, done manually, was monumental. To make that end crescendo loud-it wasn't written, the orchestra was told to go from A to E in 37 bars and do the best they could. I was playing the faders as the song progressed and realizing that what I wanted was another 6 dB by the time I got to the end. I pulled the whole thing way up. I'm proud of doing that-how else could you have done it?

When did you first know that you would be a recording engineer?
The intention was never to become a recording engineer. When I was at school I used to love music and listened to all the hit records. I used to say to myself, homing in on the selling point of the record, if I was to be involved I would have done something different to make it better. As a kid, I was into the music more than anything else.

I wrote letters to all the record England we left school at 16 then. I wrote the normal letters and was rejected by everyone, and finally I got a reply from EMI in St. John's Wood. My interview was most bizarre. I was grilled by two fairly elderly men, who were talking nothing more than technical drawing. It had nothing to do with the music, and I didn't know at that time what was involved in making a record. I just wanted to be a part of it all.

Nevertheless, I was hired and just went from there. There was a lot of luck, but I was also trying to do things differently. Many times when I tried to change the methods of recording-as a fully fledged engineer I would drastically change the techniques-most of the engineers were 40 and older and they would say, "Why do you want to do this? We've been doing it this way for years. Leave it alone." What would happen is they would get a session, and the producer would suggest that they do it "like Geoff does it." There was a bit of resentment.

Because you were working with the Beatles, did you have the clout to do what you wanted?
Oh yes, we could get away with just about anything. With the recording of the drums, I wanted to move closer with the bass drum mic to get that impact. EMI's directive was to place the mic about three feet away. Whilst I was doing this, I was sent a letter from the technical division that said you couldn't do this because of the air pressure against the diaphragm in the microphone, but they would give us permission nonetheless to do it.

Just as Norman went on to producing, how did you make that transition?
Well, I had left EMI and was working with Apple. The record companies were relying so much on the engineer to carry the sessions. The few of us who had some sort of clout could say we wanted a piece of the action. We were not only engineering, we were actually making the record, with all the decisions necessary.

Robin Trower was the first for me as a producer. Matthew Fisher produced Bridge of Sighs and I produced his next album [For Earth Below]. Then I did some albums with Gino Vanelli at AIR. There was Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom, probably my biggest success as a producer. It was really easy for me, because he was so full of energy. My role was just to capture it as quickly as possible. I think we cut 14 basic rhythm tracks in a night, did some overdubs, vocals and finished in about two weeks.

Did you introduce the use of headphones for musicians in the studio?
Well, we'd never used headphones before when doing overdubs. The standard method was to feed the tracks back through loudspeakers and the vocalists and musicians would play along.

Didn't that cause muddiness?
Sure, but the system didn't allow you to use headphones. It was unheard of.

How weird.
Yes, but no stranger than the BBC radio announcers being expected to wear evening clothes. They had to wear a tuxedo to read the evening news, even though no one saw them.

What about consoles?
I love Neve boards and always have. We're talking about textures and tones, and I've always felt that mixing sounds is like painting a picture. You get a dab of this and a dab of that, you've got your depth and so forth.

What advice would you give to those trying to create something as historical as your past work?
Go back to the basics. You start with the song, and the sound, the melody. I've always worked hard because of the music, not for the technology. My training at EMI was in classical music as well as rock-to be able to go in and record an opera on 2-track was an incredible experience. These are the big paintings with the big brushstrokes where you learn about engineering. You can't go back and fix it; it's there. That's why some of the old recordings will never be beat, never in a thousand years.

Contrary to popular myth, that is not Mix roving editor Mr. Bonzai standing to the left of Karl Marx on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.