Significance and Beginnings

Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road– each of
these albums by The Beatles contains works of true artistic brilliance and sonic bewilderment.
Throughout numerous moments of listening to these records, one may constantly wonder: How
did they get away with this? Who was capable of making this sound cohesive? What made the
Four sound so good? More than likely, most critics and fans would recall Sir George Martin as
being the lone recipient to such claims and others similar. However, studio engineer Geoff
Emerick, who ranked as EMI’s (Electric and Musical Industries) First Sound Engineer on the
aforementioned Beatles albums, was also responsible for copious moments of technical
innovation, undeniable expertise, and a defy-the-rules mentality that enabled their sound to
consistently evolve and garner prolific acclaim. From his savant-like beginnings with EMI, his
premature and important rise to First Engineer, to recording and mixing several of the greatest
albums in popular music; Geoff Emerick is a significant catalyst for The Beatles’ success and a
very important innovator within audio engineering.

Geoff Emerick’s beginnings at EMI started when he was only fifteen years-old, and he was
immediately immersed in one of London’s premier recording studios. Born in London during
1946, he possessed a strong desire to be involved in music, “…by the age of seven years-old. I
had access to my grandmother’s 78 rpm records and a toy gramophone. I would listen to the
music and think ‘If I was involved in that…I would make certain changes to what I was
hearing.’…It wasn’t the technical aspect at all, I wanted to be involved in the creating or helping
to create music. And that carried me, from the age of probably before I was seven all the way
through when I left school.” (GRAMMY Pro, 2016). Unfortunately, after leaving school, he
received rejection letters from all of the four existing major recording studios in London.
Eventually, he was able to obtain a position at EMI Studios, located in St. John’s Wood (on
Abbey Road), just outside of London, at the extremely early age of fifteen after, “…the career’s
officer in St. John’s Wood was asked by Abbey Road if they had anyone who wanted to work in
a recording studio and this particular career’s officer had nobody. But he contacted my career’s
officer, he’d been trying for weeks and weeks to get me an interview at EMI…two weeks later, I
got the job. I was just three months shy of being sixteen.” (GRAMMY Pro, 2016).

An Unprecedented Opportunity

However remarkable this may seem, Emerick began to learn and develop his skills quickly and
rose through the ranks at Abbey Road. His first working position in the recording studio was an
Assistant Engineer, where he, basically, pressed-play on the tape machine to initiate the
beginning of a recording session. While recalling this, Geoff clarified that, “Multi track was
behind the times there…We were recording straight to stereo during those sessions…It was quite
an important job, especially when you were on classical sessions because if there was any oxide
build-up on the tape heads, there was no recall to rectify the dropout on the tape while recording
a huge and expensive orchestra and so forth.” (GRAMMY Pro, 2016). However, during his first
week at work, he sat in on The Beatles’ first EMI session on June 6, 1962. This was where, after
cutting the track, “How Do You Do It?” (one they eventually did not officially release, but was
instead given to Gerry and the Pacemakers by George Martin) John Lennon mentioned they
wanted to record their own song, “Love Me Do.” “So they did three or two versions of it,”
Emerick stated stated, “because they had to stop at 10 o’clock at night” (GRAMMY Pro, 2016).
While acting as an assistant engineer for The Beatles during their early singles through to parts
of the album “Help!”, he was able to work under two very prominent and skillful figures at EMIGeorge
Martin and Norman Smith. Reflecting on working with Martin, he recalled “I used to get
on well with George…so when I was an assistant, I used to do most of his sessions.” However,
when it came to Norman Smith, who was the Beatles’ original engineer, he “…used to like
working with me as well, and we had a great relationship. He taught me some priceless
fundamentals that I’ve never forgotten.” (Droney, 2016). Next, he was promoted to cutting
playback lacquers, where he made the seven-inch lacquers that artists could take home to analyze
after a recording session, and then between the ages of seventeen and eighteen, quickly advanced
to the role of Mastering Engineer. “To know mastering was to know what you could get on the
tape that could actually be transferred to the master,” he stated, “Because, of course, if you
overdid the bass end, or didn’t get the phasing right when you were recording, there were
problems.” (Droney, 2016). It is also noted that business at a professional recording studio was
ran much differently over fifty years ago, but the swelling popularity of The Beatles began to
change that: “At that time, you were never going to be a recording engineer and producer until
you were forty years old. That was just the system. When the Beatles started, of course, things
began to move at a different pace. And then Norman, their engineer, wanted to become a
producer.” (Droney, 2016).

Promotion at EMI

When Norman Smith decided to change his role to record producer, this was a very pivotal
moment for Geoff Emerick’s early career. Not only was the only person to have ever fully
engineered The Beatles going to be removing himself from this small circle (he was obviously
not taking George Martin’s role as producer of The Beatles), but EMI ended up promoting a very
young but experienced engineer in Geoff to be the head audio engineer for all of the company’s
recordings- it was April of 1966, and he was only nineteen years-old. Emerick remembered, “…
as I’d been second engineer on some of the Beatles’ sessions…it was decided to promote me to
engineer. I was not quite twenty, so everyone was aghast at this. But EMI knew that Norman was
going to leave, and they had to have someone, so I was made an engineer.” (Droney, 2016).
Ironically, the responsibility to lead current and future records for The Four (behind George
Martin, of course) did not, at first, come with a definite decision from him. Although they were
the grandest social and media sensation that England had ever produced, Geoff was, “…shocked
at being asked to do it. I was playing this little game in my head—eenie meenie, back and forth.
It it stopped on this, I was going to do it; if it stopped on that, I wasn’t. And it stopped on yes…
The responsibility was enormous” (Droney, 2016).

However nervous he must have been regarding this proposition that fell into his lap, it was
evident that his hands were full with the shear weight of the job. Here he was, barely twenty
years old, helping make music with some other twenty-somethings that were tuned to the
prospect of changing the world through their music. Despite this, however, the strict rules and
regulations enforced by EMI hindered this prospect- albums produced there, at the time, did not
possess the enhanced amplitude and frequency characteristics as those from the United States.
Emerick figured this out while he was a mastering engineer when EMI, “…[we] used to get
American records in and wonder how they got the sounds they did. We, of course, were limited
to EMI equipment. There was no outside equipment allowed in, apart from a few Altec
compressors. If they did bring a piece of equipment in, they took it apart and rebuilt it…just to
find out how it worked, I guess (Droney, 2016).” The technical limitations were not as bad when
compared to the tracking and equalization limits that were placed on Beatles albums of that time.
“It was the bass and also the level—the loudness—that fascinated us…there were certain things
that we weren’t allowed to do…because in the early days, there had been one particular Beatles
single that was mastered and it jumped (skipped). They’d pressed about a quarter million of them
and they had to redo them all. After that, for any Beatles single that was cut in England, everyone
was instructed to cut all bass below 50 cycles (hertz)…it also had to be 2 to 2 1/2 dBs quieter
than any other records” (Droney, 2016). Throughout his first real engineering job with The
Beatles, however, Geoff would stretch and sometimes completely break these rules.

Taking-Off with Innovation Through Experimentation

It all began on April 6, 1966, the first day of tracking for what would amount to The Beatles’
only UK album release of that year—Revolver. The only working title for the song they worked
on that evening in studio three was John Lennon’s “Mark I, ” a song with heavy psychedelic
connotations and what many deem as one of their most experimental songs. It would eventually
be titled later with the Ringo-ism “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Always in distaste of his own
voice, Lennon would constantly have George Martin and/ or Norman Smith place tape echo or
reverb on his voice to mask whatever it was he seemed to disdain, other times he would double
track his vocals.

There was, thankfully, a new invention around during this time to replace the chore of precisely
singing the same vocal track a second time. It was invented by Abbey Road’s own technical
engineer, Ken Townsend, called ADT (Automated Double Tracking). In Robert Rodriguez’s
book Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ’N’ Roll, he explained that “It operated on the
principle of a tape delay, wherein a signal could be diverted during the mixing process into a
second tape mechanism and then rerouted back to the track where the original signal was bound,
superimposing this second signal upon it with just the slightest variance in timing, controlled by
an oscillator, resulting in the effect of a single performance sounding double-tracked. With stereo
mixes, the ‘two’ performances could be panned to opposite channels” (Rodriguez, 100-101).
This saved a vast amount of time in the studio for Emerick and the rest of EMI’s staff, especially
when working on this project, and it was also a new trick that they could easily utilize at an given
moment to satisfy a recording’s demands.

Another invention utilized by Emerick was Vari-Speed. This was, in simple terms, altering the
speed of a tape machine while recording a track. For example, to enable a drum track to sound
slower in isolation from the rest of a recording, Geoff would simply (with thoughtful calculations
from George Martin) increase the speed of the tape machine while it was recording the drum
track and simply place the machine back into the standard speed of 15 IPS (inches per second)
during playback. As a result, the drums will appear to sound slower because they were initially
recorded faster than the guitars, vocals, bass, etc. This method was utilized heavily by Emerick
during the recording of Revolver, and was later used inversely (tape speed was slower than
standard during recording) for the vocal tracks of “Here, There and Everywhere,” and “I’m Only
Sleeping.”

Back to recording Lennon’s vocals on April 6th, with these two new studio tricks recently added
to his repertoire, Emerick decided not to utilize either of them. Instead, as George Martin would
once recall in detail, “For ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ [Lennon] said to me he wanted his voice to
sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a hilltop, and I said, ‘It’s a bit expensive going to Tibet.
Can we make due with it here? I spoke to Geoff Emerick, and he had a good idea. He said, ‘Let’s
try putting his voice through a Leslie speaker and back again an re-recording it.’ A Leslie speaker
is a rotating speaker, a Hammond console, and the speed at which it rotates can be varied
according to a knob on the control. By putting his voice through that and then recording it again,
you got a kind of intermittent vibrato effect…I don’t think anyone had done that
before.” (Beatles Anthology, 211). In consequence, by utilizing that Leslie speaker, Emerick
created a very unique and memorable tone for Lennon’s voice just by noticing and utilizing the
right piece of equipment at the right time. The same level of innovation continued with this song,
especially through the several tape loops of random sounds that Paul McCartney returned to the
studio with the following day. To record them onto tape, it, “…required the use of many tape
decks and many hands. As someone (a Beatle or George Martin) directed the faders up or down
at the desired points in the song, engineers were busied holding pencils or glasses to maintain the
tension on the tape loops as they moved across the play heads. It was, as Emerick related later, a
surreal scene” (Rodriquez, 109).

In consequence, Geoff’s innovative use of equipment did not falter at all during the recording of
Revolver. One remarkable example being his method of recording McCartney’s bass guitar for
the A/B singles “Paperback Writer/Rain,” that were released during the album’s creation to
satisfy label and public demands. Still transfixed on the bass-heavy tracks of American records,
especially issued by Tabla (UK’s distributing company for Motown), both McCartney and
Emerick would try to come up with various methods to increase the attack and clarity of
McCartney’s bass playing, oftentimes meeting after studio sessions. Nothing seemed to result,
however, until Emerick conjured up a brilliant idea. “Putting his career at EMI in jeopardy (by
‘abusing the equipment, as management would have it) [Emerick] reasoned that the cone of a
bass speak could be used as a microphone, since the difference between a microphone and a
speaker was the wiring patch. By reversing the wiring…a bass speaker could become a large
microphone, surely capturing much more of the loud bass signal than the typical small mic
placed in front of the cabinet” (Rodriguez, 105). This effort, despite going completely against the
previously indicated bass regulations of EMI, is what gave these two songs the utmost punch,
grit, and immense feeling that they needed. Both were instant classics and revered by their fans,
and may have been the first “How did they do that?!” moment for a Beatles song. Another
method that was obscure for the times was Geoff’s use of close miking instruments during the
tracking for Revolver. One being his decision to remove Ringo’s bass drumhead, inserting a thick
sweater inside (a four-necked pullover worn during the filming of Help! He then replaced the
drumhead and placed a ribbon microphone three inches (!) from the drum. Back then, EMI
demanded an eighteen inch distance to be maintained between their expensive ribbon
microphones and corresponding sound sources to preserve their quality and performance.
Emerick caught heat from this and was reprimanded by the front office, but after revealing to
them the drum sound that he captured, he was, “…sent a letter, from one of the guys in the office
down the corridor, giving permission—only on Beatles sessions—to put the microphone three
inches from the drum” (Droney, 2016). Two other memorable close miking situations, which
fortunately did not render any more trouble for Emerick, were placing microphones up inside of
the bell of the trumpets played by session players for “Got To Get You Into My Life,” and the
extreme microphone proximity used to capture the fiercely shrieking violin players while
recording “Eleanor Rigby.” However different, and however fierce the consequence that may
have resulted, Geoff Emerick utilized any method that he could have to achieve the best possible
results while recording Revolver. He could only use the very little that he had, but he utilized all
of EMI’s available (and sometimes dated) technology to give this work the greatest sonic
character achievable. If listened to now, especially in mono, it’s easily realized that The Beatles
never sounded like this again. Whether it be from the numerous efforts of Vari-Speed utilized on
vocals, guitars and drums, the stark difference in lyrical content of each song, the genius use of
ADT on nearly all instruments in various moments throughout, the intensely rich and immersive
tones captured during tracking, Geoff Emerick utilized numerous recording techniques and
maverick efforts to capture The Beatles at their best, and only laid the foundation for the
organized hysteria that was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Conclusion

It is very simple to overlook a person of great significance while they are in a room of legendary
superstars. This is unfortunate, to say the least. But, although with George Martin leading the
way in the control room, Geoff Emerick was responsible (or at the absolute minimum- the person
pushing the buttons, moving the faders, or turning the knobs) for helping George, Paul, John, and
Ringo to change and evolve their sound each and every time they walked into EMI/Abbey
Road’s recording spaces. There was a lack of technology back then, but it was made up for with
coincidence, accidents, and numerous ‘What the hell, let’s try this,’ moments. He would continue
on this roughly ridden trail through his following efforts with them, those being Sgt. Pepper’s
Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and Abbey Road. Many other random
innovations would follow (he literally cut-up pieces of printed recording tape, threw them in the
air, and arranged them in random order as they laid on the floor for the circus instrumental in
Being the Benefit for Mr. Kite, and altered the speed of studio takes 7 and 26 of “Strawberry
Fields Forever” in order for the two sonically different takes to meet at B-flat and intricately
blend into one cohesive recording), and many more tremendous results would turn into legend.
As remembered jokingly by George Martin, Geoff used to, “…do really weird things [for
recording] that were slightly illegitimate, with our support and approval” (Beatles Anthology,
211). He simply did not care about the consequences that may have came from his illegal
actions, while simultaneously sacrificing himself on a daily basis to achieve the greatest possible
results and growth for his artists. “ I was abusing the equipment,” Emerick reiterated, “I was
overdriving the Fairchild [660 limiter] and there were certain limitations that were recommended
by management at EMI. 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” (Ajizian). Through the shear
abuse of equipment, while simultaneously disregarding his superiors, and willful determination
to produce greater sounds for his artists, Geoff Emerick was, and will always be remembered as,
a tremendously gifted artist sitting on the opposite side of the glass.

A Plethora of Resources from Sam Ash

If, during any moments of personal or professional audio experimentation, there is a lack of
knowledge in a specific area (be it tracking, mixing, mastering, etc.) or the absence of that one
piece of gear that has the potential to do ‘that one thing’ sought after for the desired result- use
the entire online presence of Sam Ash Music as a palette for knowledge, inspiration, and
potential ‘let’s see what happens’ moments during any audio mission. Always continue to
experiment and remain absolutely curious, that next innovation could be nearby.

Works Cited

GRAMMY PRO, “Geoff Emerick At GRAMMY Pro Studio Summit | New Orleans.” YouTube.
YouTube, 23 August 2016. Web. 1 Jun. 2019. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=rH_nXU9JVAY>.

Droney, Maureen. “An Interview With Legendary Engineer Geoff Emerick – Pro Sound Web.”
N.p., 03 Mar. 2016. Web. 1 Jun. 2019. <http://www.prosoundweb.com/article/
an_interview_with_legendary_engineer_geoff_emerick/P3/>.

Rodriguez, Robert. Revolver How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘N’ Roll. Milwaukee, WI:
Backbeat Books, 2012. Print.

Beatles, The. The Beatles Anthology. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2000. Print.

Ajizian, Ara “Geoff Emerick: The Beatles’ Legendary Recording Engineer.” Geoff Emerick: The
Beatles’ Legendary Recording Engineer. N.p., n.d. Web.1 Jun. 2019. <http://
www.musiciansfriend.com/pages/geoff-emerick>.