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The Beatles Influence on Music Recording

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The Beatles This article is taken from the Wikipedia page on The Beatles' Recording Technology


The Beatles influenced the way music was recorded in several ways.

We would say, 'Try it! Just try it for us. If it sounds crappy, OK, we'll lose it. But it might just sound good.' We were always pushing ahead: ' Louder, further, longer, more, different.'
Paul McCartney

Technological Advances

There were enormous changes in the technology of recording during the 1960s. In the early part of the decade, EMI's Abbey Road was equipped with EMI-made British Tape Recorders (BTR) which were developed in 1948, essentially as copies of German wartime recorders. The BTR was a twin-track, valve (Vacuum tube) based machine. When recording on the twin-track machine there was very little opportunity for overdubbing; the recording was essentially that of a live performance.

The first two Beatles albums were recorded on BTR two track machines; with the introduction of four-track machines in 1963 (the first 4- track recording was “I Want to Hold Your Hand") there came a change in the way recordings were made—tracks could be built up layer by layer, encouraging experimentation in the recording process.

In 1968 eight-track recorders became available, but Abbey Road was somewhat slow in adopting the new technology and a number of Beatles tracks (including “Hey Jude") were recorded in other studios in London to get access to the new eight-track recorders.

The Beatles' final album, Abbey Road, was the only one to be recorded using a transistorised mixing console rather than the earlier valve consoles. Engineer Geoff Emerick has said that the transistorised console played a large part in shaping the album's overall sound, lacking the aggressive edge of the valve consoles.

Access to Facilities

The success of the Beatles meant that EMI gave them carte blanche access to the Abbey Road studios—they were not charged for studio time and could spend as long as they wanted working on music. Starting around 1965 with the Rubber Soul sessions, The Beatles increasingly used the studio as an instrument in itself, and therefore spent long hours experimenting and writing.

The Beatles' Attitude

As indicated by McCartney's quote above, the Beatles were trying to push musical and technological boundaries. Engineers and other Abbey Road staff regularly point out that the Beatles would try to take advantage of accidental occurrences in the recording process; “I Feel Fine"'s feedback and “Long, Long, Long"'s resonating glass bottle (towards the end of the track) are examples of this. In other instances the group deliberately toyed with situations and techniques which would foster chance effects, such as the live (and thereby unpredictable) mixing of a UK radio broadcast into the fade of “I am the Walrus" or the chaotic assemblage of “Tomorrow Never Knows." (The group would frequently refer to this method as 'random' although it is more correctly described as chance determinism.)

The experimental nature of The Beatles' recording continued out of the studio; all of the Beatles had Brennell tape recorders at home, Some of their home experiments were used at Abbey Road and ended up on finished masters; in particular on Tomorrow Never Knows.

Each time we just want to do something different. After “Please Please Me" we decided we must do something different for the next song... Why should we ever want to go back? That would be soft.
McCartney

The desire to “do something different" pushed EMI's recording technology through overloading the mixing desk as early as 1964 in tracks such as “What You're Doing," and creating a fade-in as a jokey counterpart to the ubiquitous fade-out in 1965 for “Eight Days a Week."

The legendary recording desk: an EMI TG 12345. This desk is the same one used at Abbey Road studios for the recent Beatles remix. The Studio console was used by the Rolling Stones in the 70's to record two albums while owned by Path Marconi studios in Paris.

Artificial Double Tracking

Artificial double tracking (ADT) was invented by Ken Townsend in 1966, during the recording of Revolver. With the advent of four-track recordings, it became possible to double track vocals whereby the performer sings along with his or her own previously recorded version of the song. Phil McDonald, a member of the studio staff, recalled that Lennon didn't really like singing a song twice and after a particularly trying evening of double tracking vocals, Townsend “had an idea" while driving home one evening hearing the sound of the car in front. ADT works by taking the original recording of a vocal part and duplicating it onto a second tape machine which has a variable speed control. The manipulation of the speed of the second machine during playback introduces a delay between the original vocal and the second recording of it, giving the effect of double tracking without having to sing the part twice.

The effect had been created “accidentally" earlier, when recording “Yesterday": loudspeakers were used to cue the string quartet and some of McCartney's voice was recorded onto the string track, which can be heard on the final recording.

It has been claimed that George Martin's pseudoscientific explanation of ADT ("feedback to the sploshing flange") given to Lennon originated the phrase flanging in recording, as Lennon would refer to ADT as “Ken's flanger."

ADT greatly influenced recording—virtually all the tracks on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had the treatment and it is still widely used for instruments and voices. Nowadays, the effect is more often known as automatic double tracking.

Close Miking of Acoustic Instruments

During the recording of “Eleanor Rigby" on 28 April 1966, McCartney said he wanted to avoid “Mancini" strings. (It is possible that Mantovani was actually the style that McCartney wanted to avoid.) To fulfil this brief, Geoff Emerick close-miked the strings—the microphones were almost touching the strings. George Martin had to instruct the players not to back away from the microphones. In 1966, this was considered a radically new way of recording strings; nowadays it is common practice.

Sampling

The Beatles first used samples of other music on “Yellow Submarine," the samples being added on 1 June 1966. The brass band solo was constructed from a Sousa march by George Martin and Geoff Emerick, the original solo was in the same key and was transferred to tape, cut into small segments and re-arranged to form a brief solo which was added to the song.

A similar technique was used for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" on 20 February 1967. To try to create the atmosphere of a circus, Martin first proposed the use of a calliope (a steam-driven organ). At that time only automatic calliopes, controlled by punched cards, were available, so other techniques had to be used. Martin came up with taking taped samples from several steam organ pieces, cutting them into short lengths, “throwing them in the air" and splicing them together. It took two trials; in the first attempt, the pieces coincidentally came back in more or less original order.

More obvious samples were used on “I Am the Walrus"—a live BBC Third Programme broadcast of King Lear was mixed into the track on September 29, 1967. McCartney has also described a lost opportunity of live sampling: the EMI studio was set up in such a way that the echo track from the echo chamber could be picked up in any of the control rooms. Paul Jones was recording in a studio whilst “I Am the Walrus" was being mixed and The Beatles were tempted to “nick" (steal) some of Jones's singing to put into the mix.

Direct Injection

Direct injection (DI) was first used by the Beatles on February 1, 1967 to record McCartney's bass on “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." With direct injection the guitar pick-up is connected to the recording console via an impedance matching DI box. Ken Townsend claimed this as the first use anywhere in the world. Although Joe Meek, an independent producer from London, is known to have done it earlier (early 1960s) and in America, Motown's engineers had been using Direct Injection since the early 1960s for guitars and bass guitars, primarily due to restrictions of space in their small 'Snakepit' recording studio. (Their session bassist James Jamerson can therefore claim a precedent of about 5 years on McCartney.) However, the use by the Beatles was probably the first in a major British studio, and was developed without specific knowledge of the Motown techniques.

One experiment that was never carried through was John Lennon's request to “direct inject my voice."

Synchronising Tape Machines

One way of increasing the number of tracks available for recording is to synchronise tape machines together. Nowadays SMPTE timecode is used to synchronise tape machines. On 10 February 1967 during the recording of “A Day in the Life," Ken Townsend synchronised two machines so that extra tracks were available for recording the orchestra. The technique that Townsend used was to record a 50 Hz tone on the one remaining track on one machine and used that tone to control the speed of a second machine.

Modern SMPTE controlled recorders provide a mechanism so that the second machine will automatically position the tape correctly and start and stop simultaneously with the master machine. With the simple tone used for “A Day in the Life," the start position was marked with a wax pencil on the two machines and the tape operator had to align the tapes by eye and attempt to press play and record simultaneously for each take.

Although the technique was reasonably successful, Townsend recalled that when they tried to use the tape on a different machine, the synchronization was sometimes lost. George Martin claimed this as the first time tape machines had been synchronized, although SMPTE sychronisation for video/audio synchronisation was developed around 1967 so its probably more accurate to say that this was the first use in a major studio.


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