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.