Thursday 4 October 2018

Engineer Geoff Emerick's greatest Beatles recordings

Geoff Emerick died yesterday at age 72. He was one of the Beatles' engineers, arguably their most important, because he helped realized the sounds on the band's most innovative albums, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. In a nutshell, producer George Martin's role was to structure a song and decide what instruments to record in order to fulfill the vision of that song's chief composer. In turn, Emerick's duty was to make to create and record those sounds even though he was handcuffed by the primitive equipment and strict studio regulations at the time. Emerick and other engineers were the foot soldiers in the Beatles' legend. Though they went on to forge impressive careers, their contributions deserve more recognition. This post celebrates Geoff Emerick's finest achievements in recording The Beatles (drawn from his 2006 memoir, Here, There and Everywhere, an essential read).

Tomorrow Never Knows

The first track recorded for Revolver was also the first Beatles session Emerick attended as their regular engineer (he worked them with sporadically before, such as on Beatles For Sale). During his first true session, Emerick had his work cut out for him. The main composer of this song, Lennon, wanted his voice to sound like "the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountain top, miles away." Emerick worked fast (Lennon was an impatient man) to place two mics right up to a revolving Leslie speaker which distorted and swirled Lennon's vocal. "This is bloody marvellous!" Lennon exclaimed after the first take. The revolving Leslie speaker would be trademark sound for The Beatles, and used extensively for the rest of their career.

Paperback Writer & Rain

Revolver was the album where The Beatles aimed to record new sounds, and McCartney wanted his new song, Paperback Writer, to sound as rich and deep as the American soul records he admired. "This song is really calling out for that deep Motown bass sound," the Beatles bassist told Emerick. British recordings at that time featured a thin bottom end, and the equipment at Abbey Road was stodgy and the studio's recording rules strict. No easy feat. As the Beatles rehearsed, Emerick reasoned that loudspeakers are simply microphones in reverse, so why not record Paul's bass with a loudspeaker? "Daft," replied a colleague, but sure enough after some rewiring, this experiment worked, and Paul's bass was forever liberated for all to hear in Paperback Writer, its flipside, Rain, and throughout Sgt. Pepper the following year.

Eleanor Rigby

Martin and McCartney agreed that this song needed "biting" strings like Bernard Herman's theme to the Hitchcock film, Psycho. To fulfill McCartney's wish, Emerick broke several rules during the Revolver sessions, a chief one placing microphones literally next to the instruments. Traditionally, an engineered placed one or two mics high above a string quartet, but Emerick put his mics literally an inch from the stringed instruments. "You can't do that, you know," balked one of the session players. Well, he did, and today we can hear the results on one of the greatest Beatles songs and recordings.

Got To Get You Into My Life
Since close-micing the strings on Eleanor Rigby worked, why not try the same approach with the brass on this song? But Emerick contributed something else to this quasi-soul number. McCartney wanted the "brass sound bigger," so Emerick dubbed the recorded horns onto a fresh two-track tape, then mixed it with the original horns just slightly out of sync. Voila.

the bass on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album
Technical innovation allows performance to flourish. A perfectionist, McCartney demanded more from his recorded bass during these sessions. Emerick boosted the force and presence of McCartney's bass in Revolver, but a new technique during Pepper enhanced its sound. The bass on Pepper is rich and smooth, but does not overpower the vocals and other instruments. Emerick achieved this by moving the bass amp out of the studio baffles and into the centre of the studio, then placed a mic six feet away to capture the ambiance of the room. (What's "ambiance"? Listen to the opening drums of Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breakss which was recorded in the open hallway of a large country mansion.) Secondly, during mixing Emerick broke tradition by adding McCartney's bass line last, instead of starting off mixing bass and drums (the rhythm) then layering the vocals and other instruments. This approach "sculpt[ed] the bass sound around the other instruments so that you could hear every single nuance." That's especially evident in Giles Martin's brilliant 2017 stereo mix.

Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite
True, Lennon and especially McCartney were experimenting with tape loops in 1966-7, but Emerick claims he had the idea to cut up tapes of sound effects from the EMI library to create the brilliant circus wash that concludes this song. His inspiration was the few seconds of brass band tucked into Yellow Submarine that came directly from the EMI library. Lennon's original idea was to have a calliope play-out Mr. Kite, but locating this giant instrument quickly wasn't going to happen.

Hey Jude

Here, Emerick was like a relief pitcher in baseball, called in at the last-minute to save a botched mix after The Beatles recorded this landmark song at Trident Studios. Possibly due to a technical fault at Trident, the equalization got botched with Hey Jude missing its high-end. By this time in mid-summer 1968, Emerick had quit the White Album sessions because he was (understandably) fed up with the bickering amongst the Beatles who in turn took it out on the studio staff, including him. (In particular, Lennon was nasty.) By chance, Emerick was at Abbey Road on other business when George Harrison spotted him and begged him to re-equalize the track Emerick did by adding massive amounts of treble.

Geoff Emerick went on to engineer to rest of the Beatles' records in which he employed his innovations in mic placement and mixing. Not him, George Martin or anyone else, but The Beatles pushed the envelope in recorded music during their creative peak of 1966-7, but Emerick was on the team that helped fulfill the band's vision. Emerick deserves credit for that. Generations will admire his studio innovations, which are all the more impressive given the primitive equipment of that period. Emerick himself enjoyed a wonderful career engineering for Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Jeff Beck and many others.

Thank you for the magic, Geoff.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

The White Album box set sneak preview

(Sept. 24, 2018) - Today is early Christmas for Beatles fans. Apple has released a few selected tracks to preview The White Album box set, set for release on November 9.

Those tracks are the Esher demo, the take 5 backing track and the brand-new 2018 stereo remix of Back in the U.S.S.R. Here's our verdict:

The Esher demo

Each of Paul's double-tracked vocals is placed on a separate channel, with the lead on the left and the harmony on the right. Paul is literally harmonizing with himself, and the blend sounds seamless. Similarly, the main acoustic guitar (playing rhythm) is on the left, while a secondary acoustic strums on the right. Again, smooth.

Later in the song, other elements such as handclaps and slapping the guitar appear on the right channel, and a tambourine on the left. These elements are discreet, yet distinct. The detail in these secondary instruments, even buried in the mix, is startling.

All that hiss from the original 4-track reel-to-reel tape from May 1968 has been completely removed. A slight complaint may be the absence of a higher end, such as on the tambourine. But this version is a sonic upgrade that's light years from those raw tapes.

Verdict: A

Take 5 instrumental

The only surprise with this backing track is hearing George at the start sing a few bars during warm-up and comment that he's been "wonderful on the last two takes" presumably to Paul, the composer of Back in the U.S.S.R. After that, the band launches into a slow, bluesy instrumental run, starting with the guitar squeal (we hear in the released take at the end of the jet plane intro). The bass and drums are mixed up, giving this track a lot of muscle, while the guitars sound dirty and biting. This is a good rock band. Sure, it's a fun listen, but, honestly, how many times will you play this? Me, I consider instrumentals interesting at best, though this certainly is.

Verdict: B

2018 stereo mix

The main attraction is Giles Martin's new stereo mix. After his stunning work on last year's Sgt. Pepper remix, expectations are high for his White Album. He does not disappoint.

Just like Pepper, the lead vocal and drums are placed squarely in the centre, making the song soar after the jet-engine intro. Those sound effects remain woven in the left channel while the barrel-house piano rolls along in the right. George's growling guitar stays in the right, as well. All elements are well-balanced and complement each other. No instrument awkwardly sticks out.

The song is clearer than ever before. The bottom end is warm and powerful. The high end sparkles with detail. This mix is a pleasure to listen to on headphones, and it shakes a room when played on a sound system.

Overall, this Back in the U.S.S.R. rocks. It packs a punch similar to the mono mix. Arguably that mono mix still delivers more force, but this 2018 mix is the best stereo one, hands-down. This track promises that the 2018 White Album will rock. Play loud.

Verdict: A 

Sunday 16 September 2018

9 things we want in the White Album box set

Paul answered the prayers of Beatles fans and confirmed there'll be a box set of The White Album on its 50th anniversary this fall. Amazing!

Immediately, the internet crackled with speculation about what would be on it, or rather what fans WANT. Keep in mind that The Beatles set the bar high with last summer's stunning Sgt. Pepper super deluxe set that was bursting with outtakes, a dazzling new stereo mix and a stunning 5.1 surround sound mix. For The White Album (aka The Beatles) here's our wish list (in no particular order):

1) The Esher demos

Sure, these 23 acoustic demos, recorded at George's Surrey home in May 1968 just before the band returned to Abbey Road, are widely bootlegged and easily available, but the sound quality varies. We'd like to see every single demo remastered and remixed to the quality of the handful found on 1997's Anthology 2. (Yes, that includes What's The New Mary Jane?) The demos were the blueprints of most of The White Album tracks, so are fascinating to compare and a pleasure to listen to. It's the Beatles unplugged.

2) A new stereo remix. Giles Martin forever banished the lousy wide-panning of the Pepper album (though I still prefer the original A Day In The Life), and he can apply the same formula to The White Album. This means vocals squarely in the center to anchor the mix, with the instruments placed in the left and right channels to create a balanced, yet exciting sonic picture. In particular, the rock songs, such as Back in The U.S.S.R. and Yer Blues would benefit. Studio equalization would punch up the drums and bass, add muscle to the tracks, and allow, say, the horns in Savoy Truffle to sparkle. All mixes of the album to date suffer from compression to some degree when played on today's audio equipment, which can reproduce sounds with higher highs and lower lows. Plus, add a touch of reverb here and there.

3) A 5.1 surround sound mix. If you play music on a home theatre system, then you know how immersive a proper 5.1 mix can be--it transports you into another world. Just listen to the extended instrumental break in 5.1 of Within You, Without You or the circus collage that ends Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite. True, the White Album is a simpler album, with fewer instruments and overdubs, but can you imagine Eric Clapton's sinewy guitar in While My Guitar Gently Weeps gripping your room in 5.1? Or the layers of vocals and instruments in Happiness Is A Warm Gun?

4) Outtakes
Is there a slower Glass Onion? A punk Honey Pie? What we do know from bootlegs is that there was an organ on Happiness Is A Warm Gun

and Paul strumming Helter Skelter on acoustic
and that John wrote Good Night and sang it to George Martin who, alas, regrets he didn't record it. But is there a snippet of that somewhere?

5) Sour Milk Sea by George

This is a terrific mash-up of Jackie Lomax's released version married to George's Esher demo. Why the hell didn't this make the album? Is there a proper run-through by most or all of the band kicking around?

6) Other unreleased songs

Not Guilty (Anthology 2), Step Inside Love/Los Paranoias (Anthology 2). Did the band ever run through Circles?

7) Revolution, take 20

Essential. This version includes the long montage that ends this version. Most of those sounds would form Revolution 9. The track bears a resemblance to I Am The Walrus which also featured an experimental, long fade-out. Listening to this, you hear John's original vision for Revolution, which was supposed to sound like a revolution.

8) And yes, the full 25-minute version of Helter Skelter. It'll probably sound boring and repetitive, but why not if we have the space of a box set. Plus, we want to hear it. At least once.

9) Chatter: These were the weird sessions, the ones where the lads were (purportedly) drug free and into TM. It's also the sessions where they seemed to tape everything. Absolutely everything. The original album release had snippets of chatter, and we've heard outtakes of Mother's Nature Son where John suggests the use of brass rather than strings. Any more conversations that might shed light on the recording and songwriting process?