Geoff Emerick: The Beatles’ Legendary Recording Engineer
By Ara Ajizian, Musician’s Friend Managing Editor
Few people have had an impact on modern recording as Geoff Emerick, recording engineer at EMI Studios (later known as Abbey Road Studios). His seminal work as engineer with the Beatles on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road included pioneering recording techniques that are emulated to this day, even now in digital form. Geoff was gracious enough to invite us to his home, where Musician’s Friend customers and Beatles die-hards Leo del Aguila and David LaRosa joined us for a discussion on Emerick’s storied career. There are also some helpful tidbits that anyone who’s recording can put to use!
Musician’s Friend: Your first session at EMI as recording engineer was for “Tomorrow Never Knows” as the Beatles began work on Revolver. Almost immediately, you began breaking the strict rules that were in place by studio management. Tell us a little about why that happened.
Geoff Emerick: The thing was to win them (the Beatles) over because Norman Smith, the original Beatles engineer, was leaving to become a record producer. I was only 19 at that time and I'd moved up the ladder. I was actually mastering records before that, and it opened my ears to the sounds on American records. The sounds that were coming out of Abbey Road studios were a little more lackluster than the American ones, especially on the bass end, and also from the level point of view.
So that was a great sort of training. It opened my ears that there were things to be done, but being so young I didn't know how. [The Beatles] didn't want the regular drum sound that they'd been used to, because again, they'd heard American records. So what I did, I actually came in close with the overhead and then came in close with the bass drum mic and took the front skin off the bass drum. No one had done that before. There was sweater from that film…I don't know if it was Help!… [Ed. note: the working title for Help! was Eight Arms To Hold You]…but there's four necks in it, so we stuffed that into the bass drum and put the front skin back on and then put the bass drum mic about four inches away from the front skin. It gave me that tremendous hard thud which no one had even heard before.
Then the next thing was John wanted his vocal to sound like the Dalai Lama singing on mountaintop 25 miles away. John found it hard to express exactly what he wanted, so he used to talk about things like the Dalai Lama singing. I was looking through the control-room window and there was a Leslie revolving speaker from the Hammond organ. I thought If we could tap into the circuitry of that and put John’s voice through it, that might do the job. So that’s what we did, and that won John over.
MF: That first session really set the stage for everything you ended up doing with the band, right?
GE: Because I was abusing the equipment. I was overdriving the Fairchild and there were certain limitations that were recommended by management at EMI. “You should only go to this level and you should only do this. You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” That’s the way it was and the only way I could achieve any sort of differential in sound was to just overload the equipment, basically.
MF: Do you feel that the sense of experimentation you thrived on back then still exists today?
GE: I don’t think it’s there, because if we’re going to start talking about software, a lot of the software is based on a lot of things we were doing then. Most of them really are just equalizers. That’s all they’re really doing. But the fun part of it was creating our own things from scratch. Everything sort of started on the studio floor. The performance and the product was more important rather than immediately putting software and plug-ins into what you were doing. It was a lot more fun to create your own sound and I think the focus should be on that. Because of that, much of the content just sounds the same. Everyone’s using the same plug-ins. I can’t manufacture stuff in the control room. It has to happen on the studio floor. But if artists keep rehearsing and they’re singing out of tune, eventually they’re going to be able to sing it in tune. And it’s good for them because they can then go out live and perform properly and get respect for that.
MF: Today’s digital recording software can seem very overwhelming to the uninitiated, almost like being thrown into a professional studio with no training. What are some fundamentals that one should really focus on before they even start laying down serious tracks?
GE: First of all they have to focus on the structure and obviously whether you’ve got a good song. There’s no point to me in working on something that’s bad. So you’ve got to find the good song and then you structure it. And then you’re after performance. The focus shouldn't be on the technicality of making music. It should be on the music and then understanding what the instruments are going to sound like and the way they work.
MF: Many people who are into home recording find themselves in the position of playing engineer and artist at the same time. Is there any advice you have for someone in that situation?
GE: There has to be someone on the sidelines who can be objective. If someone thinks he's done an incredible thing because he's only given 50% of his thought to his artistic side and 50% to the technical side, he's losing out on both sides. In fact, the whole thing's getting lost. So you need someone who's objective to be able to criticize, in a certain way, what the artist is doing.
I know when you try to produce and engineer, you can't give 100% to producing and 100% to engineering. It’s like when we were doing Imperial Bedroom with Elvis Costello—who really wants things done pretty fast. He wants to just run in and do a vocal. He hasn't got time really to mess around with the sound and this and that. He's just got a new line that he wants to replace. You're doing the engineering side and he might suddenly turn around and say, was that in tune? Well, you weren't listening because you were technically trying to do your thing. So you're losing out also there. You're not giving 100% to the production and 100% to the engineering. It's impossible to do both jobs.
MF: So your advice for those people who have a home studio setup is to seek out a second set of ears?
GE: Absolutely. I mean it's, to me, the only way to do it. I can't actually imagine that artists record themselves. To me that's impossible. It really is. They can't be getting the best out of the product. They obviously fall into a trap. Especially, I know from some of my friends and colleagues, when they've got their home studios they just go around in circles when they're trying to work at home. Instead of working from 9:00 'til 5:00, they work from 9:00 'til midnight going around in circles with the same thing. So they've sort of completely lost the plot. It's either there or it isn't. Why are they working from 9:00 'til midnight? There's got to be something wrong.
MF: Would you say in this new paradigm that it's better to focus first on the performance and then get into engineer mode and tweak it?
GE: Yes. To me, there shouldn't be much to do. One thing that annoys me more than anything, especially with drum tracks, is immediately you've done a basic rhythm tracks the Pro Tools operator is moving all the drums into time. Problem is, if you do that it's like listening to a clock ticking. So all that—we're talking probably fractions of a millisecond—human time in playing drums which gives it the feel has completely been taken away. So that's the first mistake, because that's the heart and soul. Drums and bass have always been the heart and soul of any rhythm track. That's the magic of those tracks. When I was mixing a lot of those Beatles guitar tracks, I used to like the sound of the finger coming off the guitar string at the end of the last solo note. I used to just lift the fader and bring that noise up, which gave it excitement.
MF: It sounds like the overall advice is, “Don't sacrifice the human element.”
GE: Yes. As I said, there should be very little to do once you've got that performance. It's like making a film. You set the scene up and you go for the take.
MF: What advice do you have for a band going into a real studio for the first time?
GE: Being rehearsed to a certain level. That's what I'd do and not worry about what you've probably heard about other people, the way other people work. Forget about the technology. Obviously you've got to get, hopefully, a good engineer to get a good sound on you. An engineer that will go in the studio and listen to your instruments and then say, “I think you should probably change this” or “do that” or “that's not right.”
A few years ago we tried to reconstruct the recording of Sgt. Pepper at Mark Knopfler's studio in Chiswick. It was a BBC project for the 40th anniversary. Mark's got a REDD 51 mixing console, which is the same console that Pepper was recorded through. We had Studer give us the four-track, one-inch machines and I used the same microphones. The objective of the exercise was to get 12 of today's top bands—we had Bryan Adams, The Fray, Stereophonics and Kaiser Chiefs.
Kaiser Chiefs came in to do "Getting Better." So they did about three or four passes of the basic rhythm track for the song. We're on four tracks and it's all going on to one track. That's how we used to record. These guys are used to working with Pro Tools. They did about four or five passes, came into the control room, and it sounded dreadful as a performance. So the lead guy from the Kaiser Chiefs said, "Doesn't sound very good, does it? We normally do three or four passes and the Pro Tools operator sticks it together." So they went back out into the studio and they did a few more takes and it's getting no better. They said, “Can we switch the cameras off? We're going to have a band meeting.”
They came back to the studio and said, "Okay, let's carry on." We then did another 21 takes of the basic rhythm track and got it to perfection, then did our overdubs and we did everything else on that premise. It sounded absolutely amazing and they were just blown away that this was the way they should be doing it.
Also there was a group called The Magic Numbers. There were two girls that sang in harmony on "She's Leaving Home." They were in the booth doing their harmony vocals and they weren't singing together. I went out and had a chat with them and said, “You know, you're not starting the words together and you're not finishing the words together. What I found out is they would do them one at a time and the Pro Tools guy would stick them together. They'd never sung together before as two harmony singers.
So we spent five hours getting this harmony part. They were tearful at the end of it and very thankful, because no one had ever shown them the little tricks about watching each other's mouths together, finishing the words, starting the words together and getting that pitch properly.
MF: You mentioned harmony singers watching each other’s mouth as they sing. Is that something the Beatles did?
GE: When you watch each other's mouth you know where the mouth is going to go for the word so obviously you follow. I think when we were doing "Because" on Abbey Road, they were sitting in a semi-circle. I think it was Paul who was always fastidious about watching each other's mouth when you can. He said, "Just watch my mouth. This is where we're going to end." Someone has to take the lead.
MF: Speaking of which, those are some of the most gorgeous harmonies ever put to tape. Can you talk a little bit about how those were recorded?
GE: We spent a long time on those harmonies because I didn't want to use any compressors. I thought it was a great opportunity to just keep it open. So I hand-potted, because I knew the lyrics because at times we were doing these nine-harmony things. It was three takes of three voices. Ringo sat on the end, but he didn't sing. He was just there for the camaraderie of the thing. There are no compressors involved with that recording whatsoever, and that's why when it got reissued I was annoyed, because they digitally compressed it. That wasn't the premise or the point of recording that song. A lot of that atmosphere was taken off of that track.
MF: Are there any other techniques that have vanished as a result of digital technology that artists really should focus on?
GE: Singing in tune, obviously. [laughter] Everyone accepts the fact that now it doesn't matter if they make a mistake because the Pro Tools guy is going to correct it for them. It's a terrible trap to fall into. It really is. I mean, the creative process is gone. Paul [McCartney] and I used to discuss a lot about the bass sound and were still after that ultimate bass sound. I used a loudspeaker for "Rain" and "Paperback Writer" as a microphone, so I could get some incredible bass sounds. On Sgt. Pepper, it was about two or three in the morning, and it was only me and Richard, my assistant, and Paul. The others used to go home, and I used to bring Paul’s bass amp out in to the middle of Number Two studio. I used a [AKG] C12 about eight foot or six foot away from the amp on figure of eight, just to get a bit of atmosphere and reverb from the studio. Once we’d done that basic rhythm track Paul would ehave a tape he’d take away, because we had cassettes then. He’d probably be rehearsing at home on his bass lines and stuff. So there’s time there on working out the part. And then we’d come into the studio and then it might take him about two or three hours to get the actual performance. You know, I’ve seen his thumb bleed. We used to say, “Can you accent that note?" "Can you do this?" "Can you do that?" You know? All those bass parts were just created from him, and no one else. And the energy that was put into each note, it meant something.
MF: There are several techniques you developed out of necessity that are still very much applicable today. One example is how you fattened up the horns on “Got To Get You Into My Life.”
GE: Right, right. We wanted a bigger sound on that brass section. How can we make it sound bigger? So the thing was we could double-track it, but there were no more tracks left. So we actually recorded it or copied—either copied it or recorded it—onto a stereo piece of tape. When we came to do the mix it was a question of just fingers crossed and starting up the stereo machine, because there was no synching them together, in reality. Just came with the grease pencil mark. You used to move it and start at a certain point in the music and hopefully it would marry.
So we sent this first double track, in fact more than theory, the brass from a separate tape machine. I believe there was a similar thing happened on a Jackie Lomax record I did with Harrison, “Sour Milk Sea.” Clapton came in to do the solo, and the amount of gap we'd left wasn't quite long enough for the solo that Clapton had done. So what we did, we played the four track and he played the solo. We recorded the solo on a stereo machine. When we came to do the mix we just injected the solo into the mix on the stereo machine.
MF: One of the tools you had at your disposal was to speed up and slow down tape for various reasons.
GE: That’s right.
MF: Can you talk about some of the ways in which that technique was used when you were recording with the Beatles?
GE: I think the first time was the drum loop on "Tomorrow Never Knows." That was slowed down, but where it actually started to shine was when we did the drum track for "Rain." That was slowed down too. I think that’s Ringo’s favorite drum track, actually. When a lot of things were sort of slowed down to add character to the timbre of the rhythm track, instead of always having to play the tape from a vari-speed, what we used to do is if it was going to be slowed down, George (Martin) used to work out how many cycles to speed the tape machine up as it was recorded so we could always play it back at 15 IPS (inches per second) and it would come back slowed down. So that’s how we used to do that in those days. If it wants to be slowed down we used to record it with the tape running a little faster and then go back to 15 IPS. That would slow it down.
MF: So recording instruments somewhat slowed down could give them sort of a looser, more powerful sound?
GE: It’s always an unbelievable sound, because you start listening to the tonality of instruments. I think someone suggested at one time that before you became a recording engineer or you were involved with making music or recording music, you should go and listen to classical music. You should go to operas. You should go to live gigs. You should go to big-band stuff, just to hear what these instruments actually should sound. A lot of people have never even heard these instruments live and for the first time they’re into their Pro Tools rig with something on it, and so the sound gets destroyed.
MF: In your book, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, talk about a place at EMI Studios where you could go and pick out sound effects?
GE: That was a cupboard. Underneath the staircase of number two studio. Underneath that staircase they kept all the sound effects. There was a wind machine and a thunder machine. Always remember there was a tap mat. You could tap dance on it.
MF: And the Beatles would raid that?
GE: Yes. Whenever you were stuck for an overdub to go into a little place you'd raid the cupboard and find something. They'd start playing all sorts of stuff—squeaky hooters and all sorts. All the overdubs that were on those tracks, there was nothing superfluous. Every overdub that went on top of the basic rhythm track meant something. It was there for a reason. It was not overdub after overdub after overdub. Otherwise you have to keep pulling back all your overdubs to get the next overdubs.
MF: A lot of people look at engineering as sort of the technical side of capturing music, but you obviously disagree with that. Can you speak about that a little?
GE: Yes. There are two realms there, two camps. From the age of seven I loved music and wanted to be involved with creating music in some form. I didn't know how records were made or anything, I just loved it and wanted to be involved with creating it. The technical side just didn't come into it. When I started you weren't even allowed to move a patch bay or jack plug into one circuit or another. The maintenance people at EMI Studios had to do that. If you wanted a microphone rerouted on the session you had to phone up the maintenance room and you'd hear them run down the stairs to the session and change the plug over. You weren't allowed to touch anything like that. The producer wasn't allowed to even touch a fader on the mixing console.
Anyway, that's the way it was then. So the technicalities weren't part of it. It was actually creating this picture from musical instruments and the song and whatever you were given from the studio floor. That really stemmed from the game when I first started —you actually were assistant engineer on classical sessions. So working on operas with Maria Callas and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and working with those great conductors like Otto Klemperer, who used to put the fear of God up to the musicians. I mean, they used to actually shake in their seats when Otto was conducting. He was a big man and he used to pound the podium and stuff. Those performances from those classical records were just amazing. That was implanted in my mind: the emotion of that music was incredible. So I guess that transpired and I carried that across to working with pop records, to try and get that sort of emotion to be brought out of it. I don't hear any emotion in anything anymore.
MF: I think the story of trying to get the water bubble sounds in “Octopus’s Garden” highlights the creative side of engineering. You came up with a unique solution right?
GE: Yes. There was also an engineer, Jeff [Jarrett] who was involved with that, as well. What it was, there was a stereo link on the back of the compressor and I believe we just ran a little glub-glub-glub sound into it. Then we put the vocal and whatever it was we wanted the bubbly sound on through it. That's how we did that.
MF: You looked past conventional instruments towards sounds in general to create a soundscape, with Sgt. Pepper the height of that, but you hear those sound effects throughout their recordings in so many different places. It seems like that was a real well of creativity.
GE: I guess it was. I think a lot of that stemmed from the fact that George Martin used to work on middle-of-the-road [comedy] records, so he was well aware of all these sound effects. I guess it started with him originally saying, “Oh, why not use this, which sounds unusual?” Then they became the accepted thing. We've got the availability of the sound effects library or the costume cupboard. And then we had the thing on “Yellow Submarine,” where John got manic and ran into the echo chamber with a handheld mic and started screaming those things in the middle of the record and stuff.
They were fun as well. There's an element of fun missing when I walk in on sessions now. I see a lot of worried faces and people looking at screens and a lot of silence. It wasn’t just absolute fun, it was hard work for us because we were creating. I miss that. I still try to work analog and I still try and have a sense of fun when I'm working. I really do. You have to, otherwise it's dreadful.
For the definitive story of Geoff’s time at EMI Studios recording the Beatles, pick up his book Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles.