The Long and Winding Road

Even if Geoff Emerick's career as a full-fledged recording engineer had lasted only three years, he would nevertheless have been assured a prominent spot as one of audio recording's greats.
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Even if Geoff Emerick's career as a full-fledged recording engineer had lasted only three years, he would nevertheless have been assured a prominent spot as one of audio recording's greats. If all he had done was to engineer the Beatles' LPs Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, he would still be known for pioneering a staggering number of recording techniques that have long since become standard.

For Emerick, who still engineers and produces, those albums were just the beginning. He did a lot more work with the Beatles, including Abbey Road (which had the original working title of Everest, after the brand of Emerick's cigarettes) — an album that won him his second Grammy Award for Best Engineered Recording (he won his first for Sgt. Pepper). In the 1990s, he produced, engineered, and mixed the fascinating and instructional, if raw, Anthology 1, Anthology 2, and Anthology 3.

In addition to his work with the Beatles, Emerick engineered or produced more than his share of landmark rock recordings, including Robin Trower's Bridge of Sighs, Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom and All This Useless Beauty, and a solid handful of Paul McCartney albums, including Band on the Run, which garnered Emerick his third Grammy Award for engineering. Throw in the Zombies, Art Garfunkel, several albums with America (produced by Beatles producer George Martin), Nazareth, and more, and it is clear that Emerick has kept busy.

Emerick was inducted into the TEC Hall of Fame in 2002 and was awarded a Technical Grammy in 2003. In 2004 he produced the two-CD debut album Get Away from Me by 21-year-old singer-songwriter phenom Nellie McKay.

Emerick was just 15 when, on September 3, 1962, he walked into EMI Studios on Abbey Road (later called Abbey Road Studios) in London to begin training as an assistant engineer. On the evening of his second day on the job, he observed what was the first session of a hot new band from Liverpool. The Beatles would do many more sessions in that studio (see Fig. 1), and Geoff Emerick would play a key role in lots of them, eventually breaking a number of the same EMI rules he'd learned starting on his first day.

After Rubber Soul was produced, the Beatles' original engineer, Norman Smith, moved on to become the producer for a band he'd discovered by the name of Pink Floyd. Emerick, then 19 years old, was offered the job of engineering the Beatles. He had worked a number of Beatles sessions as an assistant engineer, but from his first session as the Beatles' balance engineer (an EMI Studios term referring to the top-of-the-totem-pole engineers who worked the console and did the mixing), it was clear that the band was going somewhere new and had picked up an able coconspirator in Emerick.

On the second day of sessions for Revolver, also his second day as a balance engineer for the Beatles, Emerick had five tape decks running loops, which he artfully mixed down in real time to construct the psychedelic effects on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” That was a vastly new and different way to make a pop album in 1966.

His stories, recently captured in his memoirs cowritten with Howard Massey, called Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (Gotham Books, 2006), are those of legend (see Fig. 2). For instance, he describes the session for “A Day in the Life” that featured an orchestra in formal dress. As the orchestra began tuning up, roadie Mal Evans circulated among them, handing out gorilla paws, rubber noses, and clown wigs to the bemused musicians, courtesy of the Beatles. John, Paul, George, and Ringo had agreed to dress formally for the occasion, but instead they showed up clothed in psychedelic finery.

Emerick also tells of the time he and the band raided EMI's sound-effects library and gathered tapes of a calliope and a steam organ, which were then cut up, thrown in the air, and spliced back together for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” His commentary about the Beatles and others is bracingly frank. He discloses that the reason he quit as the Beatles' engineer in 1968 (during the recording of The White Album) was that he was tired of dealing with what had become constant infighting and tension between the band members.

Although Emerick's work was considered cutting-edge when he was recording the Beatles, these days he's regarded as old-school. In his opinion, much of the spontaneity and emphasis on performance has been lost from the recording process since the advent of computer-based multitracking. He feels that the group interaction and flow of a recording session — which was so important, for example, during the Beatles' days — has been lost in today's studio world.

Affable and easygoing, Emerick has a great appreciation for the rare and fortuitous chain of events that enabled him to contribute to a revolution in recording and music making. He has definite ideas about what he likes, and he often uses visual metaphors when talking about sound. I caught up with him as he was nearing the end of recording an automobile association ad in England that had a budget substantial enough to hire an orchestra and a choir — and Emerick.

CHEMISTRY AND MORE

The phenomenon of the Beatles in the studio was an amazing confluence of a number of entities. One was the availability of EMI's resources; another, the contributions of the Beatles themselves; yet another, those made by Emerick, the kid who was willing to try anything and break the rules; and lastly, the contributions of Martin, who had a background of scoring and orchestrating, as well as of producing records with crazy comedians.

How did all those different personalities come together to create?

If you're talking about the chemistry — the way people work together — Martin had a great sense of humor. I had a good sense of humor, too, and the Beatles, when they started, had a good sense of humor, and it all kind of jelled. When we got to Revolver, they wanted to progress and got a little more serious. But it worked, because we all had a good sense of humor, which is lacking on sessions now because it's all about the technology.

On your first session as a full balance engineer, onRevolver,you stuffed a sweater into Ringo's kick drum and moved the mic right up to the drum. You were the first at EMI to do close-miking. How did that go over with your co-workers?

I upset a lot of engineers who'd been doing things the “standard” way. They didn't want a harder life, I guess. I was used to distance-miking because that was the way people recorded everything. With close-miking, it was just a question of putting your ear near the instrument and finding the tonalities. When you close-mic something, it's like putting a close-up lens on. You have to start thinking in terms like “depth of field.” I try to apply all of that to the way I think all of the time. If you mic a cymbal at the edge, you get a lot of low end. No one thinks there's low end on a cymbal, but there is if you place a mic on the edge.

It seems as though you enabled the Beatles to push the boundaries of sound.

If they started on a new song and there were drums, piano, bass, guitar, whatever, and then we'd have a playback, I knew that if it sounded ordinary, I'd be glared at. So I had to do something — be it overloading equalization or amplifiers, using a mic you'd never think of using, muffling something up, putting equalizer boxes in series. It's all I could do, you know? What did we have to grab? Rolls of sticky tape and some tape machines. No phase boxes; there was nothing! But we were trying for new sounds all the time, and we had the luxury of time to do it, because the Beatles spent so much time in the studio running through their rhythm tracks and writing and rehearsing the songs.

EXPERIMENTING

Emerick's experiments had very few boundaries. Everything came to a head one day when the Beatles wanted an underwater vocal sound for “Yellow Submarine,” and Emerick submerged a condom-covered microphone in a bottle of water (that technique was later made famous by sound designer Gary Rydstrom, using a Neumann and a bowl of oatmeal for the gooey sounds in Terminator 2: Judgment Day [Columbia Tristar, 1991]).

EMI's crusty studio manager, E. H. Fowler, chose that moment, when his still-new engineer was engaging in a bit of imprudent, potentially expensive, and decidedly improper youthful folly, to make an entrance. A quick but discreet scramble hid the bottle, and Emerick relaxed when the studio manager finally left, thinking that he was past the danger. Then it struck Emerick that the mic sitting in that bottle of water was phantom powered, and that someone could easily have gotten electrocuted if something had gone wrong. Oops.

I was at Abbey Road several years back and was struck by how dreary Studio 2 was. All that creativity happened in such unbelievably drab rooms.

Yes, and it helped destroy the Beatles. When I left them in '68, John was the band's spokesman when I went down into the studio to tell them I was leaving. He gestured with his arms in the air, pointing at the walls of Number 2 and said, “We've been stuck in here for three years, you know? It's like I've been in prison for three years!”

It's not a very comfortable room.

No, not to have to try to create in for three years.

One thing that amazes me is, with all of those experiments, the degree to which the lack of tracks forced you to commit yourself during the process. You'd get lots of weird new sounds laid down, and then the Beatles would want to layer in more. It must have been hard to make a sonic space for each track.

Overdubs were really overdubs to the finished track: the track up to the point of an overdub was finished in terms of EQ and echo. Therefore, the overdub had to fit in, and if that meant putting four EQ boxes in series to get a sound through, that's what I did.

I thought you had only top and bottom EQ.

There was just top and bottom on the [mixing] desk, but we had other boxes that had 10 kHz, 2.7 kHz, 3.5 kHz, and the like. You could put 10 dB of those frequencies in, and sometimes I'd put those boxes in series. We did have another thing called a curve bender, and that was a little more subtle. I was just using that and trebly mics or ribbon mics to get the sound a little rounder. That's all I really had.

SOLID-STATE SESSIONS

By the end of the '60s, the Beatles had had enough of each other. Sessions for The White Album had become so tense that Emerick temporarily quit working on Beatles records. He returned, however, to do Abbey Road.

WhenAbbey Roadwas being recorded, did the Beatles still not want to have a guitar sound like a guitar?

They were a bit more subdued in that area. Martin went and talked to Paul, and Paul promised it would be like it was in the old days — that there would be a sense of, well, honor, for lack of a better word, on the sessions. The group thing wasn't there anymore, really. That's why, on Abbey Road, there's lots of harmony work: because it was slanted toward Martin to help out on the harmony parts like it was in the early days.

It turned out to be a beautiful-sounding album. But it was sonically quite different for you, wasn't it?

I talk in the book about how we used the first transistorized mixing console and the drums didn't have the same power and impact, especially the snare. It gets a slightly softer texture, and so all the overdubs that went on the first rhythm tracks were more subtle.

After the Beatles, transistorized consoles became more widespread, and you engineered albums such asBridge of Sighson them. Did you change your opinion about them?

Oh, not really.

HERE COMES ELVIS C.

In 1982 Emerick found another creative coconspirator in Elvis Costello. Costello hired Emerick to produce his Imperial Bedroom album, a turning point in Costello's musical development.

It seems you worked well with Elvis Costello onImperial Bedroom.

I was a great admirer of Elvis and had always wanted to work with him, and it was great when he asked me to work on the album. He hired me because he wanted his voice to come through more on the recording, something that he had seemed afraid to do in the past. At first, he had a hard time coming to terms with how loud his voice was on Imperial Bedroom, but he came around.

What was your strategy in producing Elvis's vocals?

You have to capture Elvis's spontaneity, and you can't mess around spending ten, or even five, minutes trying to get a vocal sound. So I always had the vocal sound there. At any given moment that he wanted to sing into the mic, we could take it. He's an artist in the true sense, and if you leave something for ten minutes, any inflections in the words or the way he was going to sing it might have changed. He's got an idea, and he wants to do it right away — otherwise he'll lose it.

Well, that sounds like something you were used to with John Lennon. In your book, you talk a lot about his impatience.

He was impatient, yes. But he was impatient to get it finished, rather than impatient to get it down. He was never sure about his vocals, and his vocals were always fine.

RECORDING PAUL

Near the end of the Beatles, Emerick left EMI and worked for Apple, the Beatles' studio and organization. McCartney was estranged from the scene by then and rarely went or called over to Apple. Finally, Emerick accepted a long-standing offer from Martin and became an engineer at Martin's AIR Studios, a complex located in a building above Oxford Circus in London. That change led him to reconnect with McCartney and to engineer a number of his albums, among them Band on the Run, Tug of War (Capitol, 1982), and London Town.

Tell me how you made albums with McCartney.

It depends on which album you're asking about. Band on the Run is a whole story on its own. At the time, it didn't seem like that much fun, but looking back on it, it was fun. [Band on the Run was recorded in Nigeria, and its creation is a long and fantastic tale told by Emerick in his book.] We did Tug of War in London at Oxford Circus, and it took a long time. London Town was done on a boat in the Caribbean. Every McCartney album has been an adventure in a way.

Did you work on his first few solo albums?

No, because I was at Apple at that time, and he never made any contact. Within a couple of weeks of when I left Apple and joined AIR Studios, I got the phone call asking if I wanted to do Band on the Run.

SIFTING THROUGH

In the mid-1990s, Emerick was suddenly thrown into his past when he helped create the Beatles' Anthology albums. The discs featured outtakes, demos, unfinished bits, and raw tracks — sometimes assembled into elaborate edit pieces. These albums provided a revealing look at the recording process behind the masterpieces, but they exposed a lot of material that had never been released because its quality had been deemed inferior.

It must have been exciting as well as spooky to work on theAnthologyalbums.

It was, because when it started, I was sort of against it. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I felt as though I was going into Tutankhamen's tomb and destroying it. Beatles fans know every nuance in any of those songs, and to start dissecting them like that didn't feel good to me. I came to terms with it in the end, though.

Was it difficult editing the bits and pieces you had to assemble for theAnthologydiscs?

Some of the crossfading was tricky. To get closer to the original sound quality, I found an old EMI transistorized desk. I couldn't find the tube desk, obviously. The great thing was that those tapes hadn't been out of their boxes for years, but the tones went up to zero. [The tapes] didn't shed. It was the “Emmytape” [EMI-manufactured tape], and whatever they did making that, it was like working with new tape.

Did you transfer all the tapes to digital?

Abbey Road had already transferred all the tapes to digital, but I worked off of the analog masters.

That was done upstairs at Abbey Road, right?

Yeah, in the studio they call the Penthouse.

ENGINEER VS. PRODUCER

Nowadays, Emerick is as likely to produce an album as engineer one.

When you produce, do you ever work with another engineer?

Well, that depends. On the Nellie McKay album, I worked with a guy named Stuart Breed, who lives in Woodstock. He was originally from England and does all of the Art Garfunkel stuff on the road. I set it up, and then Stuart takes over as engineer, because you can't give 100 percent to engineering and producing simultaneously.

There's just too much to do to focus adequately on the needs of each role.

Yeah, there were times that that was happening on Imperial Bedroom with Elvis. Elvis would say, “Was that in tune?” and I wouldn't know because I was watching a meter shoot over.

POSITIVELY OLD-SCHOOL

Emerick still works today, but he feels strongly about the differences between how records were made earlier in his career and how they are made now. The way in which he seems most old-school — besides the fact that he still likes to record to analog tape — is that as a producer he captures strong performances that stand on their own. He does not rely on computer correcting and tweaking to compensate for subpar vocals or musicianship.

How did the sessions you did with the Beatles, America, Elvis Costello, and Robin Trower differ from the ones you do now?

I still do my sessions in the same way. I'm working on a big commercial over here in England, and some of it is being done in Pro Tools. But we're recording a big orchestra and choir next week, and I'm going to do that analog; I'm going to have two 24-tracks in lock [two synchronized 24-track tape machines].

Some techniques are harder to do with digital technology than with analog — doing off-speed recording, for instance. Do you still use analog for that?

I go to analog, yeah. Even on the Nellie McKay album, we ran three 24s in lock.

It seems as though while you recognize the new capabilities that current technology gives you, you feel it can lead people astray and confuse priorities.

Yes, it can lead you down the garden path. I'm coming from a different time, I know, but it's too easy to think you made a nice bass sound just by having a subwoofer in, and that's not the point.

Do you feel that all of the computer work in sessions now takes away some of the fun and spontaneity?

Sure it does, because the hard work used to be done away from the studio, which was the rehearsal time. Then you'd go in the studio, and that was the fun time with the orchestra, the singer, and the band. It was fun making those records. Now it's just people watching a lot of screens, and a lot of people don't have “ears” anymore. Sometimes if I point out something that's audible, they haven't been listening.

Do you yourself ever do work with the computer during your sessions?

I won't get involved with it — I find it totally distracting. Normally, the assistant engineer does it all. I just have no interest in it; it's boring to me. I just want to get on with the session. The last good album I felt I did was the Nellie McKay album, and there was no autotuning used on that album; if she was out of tune, she resang it. Now it seems that everyone wants to retune everything and change all of the drumbeats to make sure everything's in time, so that everything is boring and flat and up front in your face. There's no human soul or heart in it; it's just gone.

Larry the O has thoroughly digested Mark Lewisohn's magnificent book The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions (Hamlyn, 2005).

GEOFF EMERICK: A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Geoff Emerick's discography comprises more than 170 albums. Listed below are just some of the highlights:

Engineer

America, Holiday (Warner Bros., 1974)
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967)
The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” (Capitol, 1967)
The Beatles, “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” (Capitol, 1966)
The Beatles, Revolver (Capitol, 1966)
The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974)
Paul McCartney, Flaming Pie (Capitol, 1997)
Paul McCartney and Wings, London Town (Capitol, 1978)
Paul McCartney and Wings, Band on the Run (Capitol, 1974)
Robin Trower, Bridge of Sighs (Chrysalis, 1974)

Engineer and Mixer

The Beatles, Anthology 3 (Capitol, 1996)
The Beatles, Anthology 2 (Capitol, 1996)
The Beatles, Anthology 1 (Capitol, 1995)

Co-Engineer

The Beatles, Abbey Road (Capitol, 1969)
The Beatles, The White Album (Capitol, 1968)
The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol, 1967)

Producer

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros., 1996)
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom (Rykodisk, 1982)
Art Garfunkel, Lefty (Sony, 1988)
Nellie McKay, Get Away from Me (Sony, 2004)