We deal with machines a lot in this business. Some work, some don't. Some work for 90 days. The degree to which they do work is a measure of the integrity of the creative ideas behind them, of the validity of the designer's intentions. A piece of equipment is, in fact, an actual material manifestation of someone's creative thoughts and ideas. It also contains all the actions of the people that put it together-just ask an Englishman the meaning of V.A.T., or Value Added Tax! Furthermore, just as the designers and fabricators contribute to the existence of a machine, so too does one's subsequent interaction with it. This interaction is in fact designed into the object and is part of the original idea or concept. When you drive a car you better believe you are an integral part of that machine's design and function. Your interaction is part of the basic idea in the first place. The price of non-participation behind the wheel is obvious and often rather unpleasant!
In a business such as ours, what we can accomplish is to a great extent dependent upon our interaction with the equipment we come into contact with. How well we interact has as much to do with the overall usefulness of the particular piece of gear-i.e. whether it was a good idea or not-as it does with our own ability to utilize it effectively. Take an audio mixer for example: just as a guitar with poor action can hinder the artistic output of a talented musician, so too can an audio console without submasters (or with short throw faders!) limit a mixing engineer's creative contribution. What it can or can't do has a direct bearing on the quality and complexity of the sounds passing through it.
So in a very real sense the console becomes a participant, an integral part of the creative process. The console/engineer interface is as important to the overall sound as a conductor's presence is to a symphony orchestra.
All of which leads up to The Beatles. Or more to the point, to the significance of the recording console they used throughout most of their career. Housed in a private residence in the San Francisco Bay Area, the mixer was recently purchased by Dan Alexander, owner of Hyde Street Studios in S.F., and Chris Solberg, a local guitarist who has performed with Santana, Eddie Money, and several other bay area bands.
Joined by recording engineers Chris Michie and John Cuniberti, the five of us gathered around said console one night to discuss it's impact on the music industry. Born in Oxford, England, Chris worked at George Martin's Air Studios in the early 70's and John is presently engineering at Dan's studio in the city. The following comments have been somewhat ruthlessly condensed to its historical and-dare I say it?-emotional significance.
Solberg: "It's great to observe people when they first see the board. Everyone has an entirely different reaction! The technically minded might be impressed with the quantity and quality of the transformers for instance, while others react to it on a totally artistic or emotional level-some people actually go down on their knees!
"When we picked it up at the airport one of the customs agents came up to me and said 'Do you mind if I touch one of those faders before you go?' The biggest thing he'd done up 'till then was to bring in the wax statue of Prince Charles and Lady Di! He just couldn't believe this was the Beatles' console and simply had to experience it first hand"
Dan came across the board recently while scouring the countrysides of Europe for old microphones. A small newspaper ad took him to the town of Soest, Germany where he discovered the console sitting in the living room of a former Abbey Road engineer, Richard Huggett. Apparently the console had been warehoused after being moved out of the studio for use of the Let It Be sessions and was subsequently purchased by Mr. Huggett. Photos of the console can be seen on the Let It Be album as well as throughout George Martin's book "All You Need Is Ears."
Designed and build by EMI staff engineers in the late 50's, the desk was named the "REDD 37" and was actually one of two identical machines built for the EMI studios at Abbey Road.
Alexander: "Ken Townsend, present manager at Abbey Road recently sent me a letter stating he could definitely say this board-Model REDD 37 Serial #58121A-had been installed in either Studio 1 or Studio 2 at Abbey Road and was used on sessions by The Beatles as well as by many other EMI artists. I believe this console represents the pinnacle of technological development at that time. In 1957 they were building the best tube equipment that had ever been built! The classic years people think of in connection with great tube microphones, equalizers and limiters was that period from 1957 to 1962. Shortly after this board was built it was time for solid state."
So it appears that the Beatles were using one of the best boards in existence at the time. Built at a reported cost of about $125,000, the 8 in x 4 out console was designed to handle a wide range of musical styles and recording situations.
Solberg: "The unique thing about this console is that it is portable, entirely self-contained and carefully designed in a very military-like manner. It is composed of five interconnecting modules and weighs about 945 pounds! However, each module can be quickly separated and easily moved by two or three people in very little time."
All the modules mechanically mate together via large screw-type connectors which are permanently attached to the inside of each module. The same connecting hardware contains the mating pins for all the interconnecting electronic circuits as well, so no patch cords or multi-cables are necessary to link the units together. All the connectors and hardware are precision engineered and were apparently hand-tooled for this specific piece of machinery. Actually its color and rugged design reminded me more of a battleship than a recording console!
Michie: "Well, it is the perfect colour, isn't it! This grey is very military spec and British traditionalist. You have to see this not in the context of a room with a red carpet like this, but in the surroundings of a British recording studio during the early Sixties. EMI was like an electronics factory where everyone walked around in white coats and carried slide rules. You'd walk down the corridors and bump into people with tea trolleys! When Air Studios opened it had EMI style colouring as well-it was just bland! Such a contrast with the kind of swinging LA studios of the Seventies-you know, carpets and hot tubs in every room. And EMI maintained that style for quite a while. So it's very authentic and really is the perfect colour! And for doing four track work you really couldn't do any better at the time."
Of course, there were other boards around, but the single most important factor that makes this particular console stand out from all the rest is neither its cost nor its superior design nor its color nor a hundred other valid reasons. It's because it was used by The Beatles.
Solberg: "When they had a new concept or wanted to try out a different technique, when they sought to create a new piece of music or just add another sound to an existing one, they knew that one of the biggest modifiers to the realization of their ideas was this console! It was the necessary link between their creative minds and the sounds coming out of the monitor speakers. A lot of creativity went through this board!"
That creativity, as we were all to find out, was to have a major impact on the future of the recording industry. Sgt. Pepper alone inspired many an engineer to explore the potential of multi-track recording although that album was done on just two four-track recorders-and this console. Without stretching the limits of credibility too terribly much I would venture to say that this particular piece of equipment was ancestral to the success and advancement of the industry as we know it today. Perhaps not as culturally significant as the wheel or the flush toilet, it nevertheless directly or indirectly affected the lives of many of us now in the industry.
Solberg: "We're going to have to rope it off pretty soon because everyone who sees it wants to touch it and play with it, just like we're all doing right now! Everyone turns its knobs and pushes its faders to experience how it felt to record The Beatles! It really draws you in and makes you wonder what they were doing during the recording of a song like 'Yesterday'..."
Alexander: "Really, this thing ought to be in the Smithsonian Museum, like Lindbergh's airplane! That's how I see it. It didn't hit me at first, but after talking to several people about the console and noting their reactions to it, it soon became apparent that this is truly a unique and-dare I say-valuable item! It's as though we had Beethoven's piano. It's as though we had the instrument that great music was created on!"
Well, it was and they do. So what's to become of it now? Is it to remain unplugged and inoperative in an undisclosed location somewhere in the San Francisco area, hidden away for the private enjoyment of a small group of Beatle fanatics and the occasional extremely fortunate and grateful writer?
Alexander: "I think that this historic piece of equipment should be in a fairly unique environment like a technological museum or even a "Beatles Museum." Obviously we attach a great deal of importance to it and are very concerned with its future."
Solberg: "We'd like to record something on it first! And then sell it to someone who will respect its significance and integrity. I'm just glad it's in the San Francisco bay area music community at the moment. It's almost like a hand-me-down of a certain artistic tradition we all went through."
Cuniberti: "I hope whoever eventually gets it doesn't decide to take it apart! You know, like 'Hey, these curved faders would look great on my Model 10!' Personally, I'd love to put some state-of-the-art equipment at both ends of it and listen to what it sounds like. I believe we could actually hear it. After all, we know what the mikes sound like, we know what the room sounds like, and we know what the tape machines and monitors sound like. If we could insert this in the signal chain I think we'd be better able to appreciate whatever it did or didn't contribute to the sound of the Beatles."
There was little question among those present that the sound of this board was a common denominator which ran throughout most of the Beatles early recordings. The only question was: what exactly was that sound? How much impact did the board have on the growth and development of the Beatles music? Whatever its contribution, it is evident that the music which passed through it and the creative energies focused upon it have given it a distinct personality. It definitely has, as Dan said, "charisma!" You can still feel the energy, emotions, and creativity that flowed through its tubes, resistors, and capacitors. That hibernating energy hit me like a warm ton of bricks when I first entered the room. I felt like Indiana Jones when he discovered the Ark of the Covenant in the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark!" Then again, it could have been a case of my imagination running away with me Ahh, but what a ride!