The Beatles at Abbey Road
Hungry for success, The Beatles continually broke boundaries and traditions with their innovative use of feedback, microphone techniques, flanging and backwards recording. Key to their success were Abbey Road’s talented sound engineers, among them Norman Smith, Ken Scott, Geoff Emerick, Alan Parsons, Phil McDonald, John Kurlander, Richard Lush and Ken Townsend, who helped them realise their musical visions and gave them the necessary modified equipment to do so.
Since EMI owned the studios, The Beatles were afforded largely unlimited time to record their songs, particularly after they stopped touring in August 1966. This gave them time to relax and spend time working on tracks unhampered by the expenses occurred by other groups.
Among their most remarkable achievements was ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, for which Martin and Emerick spliced together two takes, recorded in different keys and tempos, at John Lennon’s request. ‘Rain’ was their first song to feature backwards recordings, and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was a major step forward with its use of a Leslie speaker on Lennon’s vocals, and its tape loop effects.
We did a live mix of all the loops. All over the studios we had people spooling them onto machines with pencils while Geoff did the balancing. There were many other hands controlling the panning.
It is the one track, of all the songs The Beatles did, that could never be reproduced: it would be impossible to go back now and mix exactly the same thing: the ‘happening’ of the tape loops, inserted as we all swung off the levers on the faders willy-nilly, was a random event.
Another innovation created during the Revolver sessions was automatic (or artificial) double tracking, known as ADT. This eliminated the need to double-track (twice record) instruments to create a fuller sound, and was invented by EMI’s Ken Townsend.
Townsend realised that if two identical performances were played back with one moved slightly out of sync with the other, the sound image would alter to produce an effect similar to doubletracking. By adjusting a variable speed oscillator (VSO) that controlled the speed of the motor on a second tape deck, the resulting sound would be audibly “doubled”.
The Beatles were thrilled with the innovation – particularly John Lennon, who disliked having to double track his vocals.
I knew he’d never understand it, so I said, ‘Now listen, it’s very simple. We take the original image and we split it through a double vibrocated sploshing flange with double negative feedback…’ He said, ‘You’re pulling my leg. Aren’t you?’ I replied, ‘Well, let’s flange it again and see.’ From that moment on, whenever he wanted ADT he would ask for his voice to be flanged, or call out for ‘Ken’s flanger’.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
With all The Beatles’ innovations in the studio, it is perhaps remarkable that EMI Studios had, until 1968, only four-track recording facilities. Additionally, the group’s first four singles and two albums were recorded on two-track.
The Beatles were able to add more tracks by the use of reduction mixes, by which two or more recording tracks were ‘bounced down’ to one to free up new space. However, this still lacked the flexibility during the mixing stage afforded by today’s dozens of independent tracks, and too many reduction mixes risked a loss in sound quality.
On 10 February 1967 the orchestral overdub for ‘A Day In The Life’ was recorded. This involved two four-track machines being synced together to create a rudimentary eight-track facility. However, the machines had trouble staying in time during playback, making the orchestra sound out of time in places.
During the sessions for The Beatles (White Album) in 1968, eight-track recording was introduced, and in 1970 – after The Beatles had essentially split up – Phil Spector transferred the eight-track tapes from the Let It Be sessions onto a 16-track recorder.
The Beatles recorded around 90% of their albums and singles at EMI Studios between 1962 and 1970. The address soon became known to the group’s fans, who would stand outside in all weather and wait for a glimpse of their idols.