I once met legendary record producer George Avakian, who worked with everyone from John Cage to Ravi Shankar to Dave Brubeck. I was especially interested in his sessions with Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, and the incredible stand up bass sounds on those records from the 1950s.
“What mics did you use, George?” I asked, certain I was about to acquire some arcane and sacred knowledge. “Oh, I never touched the mics,” George said quickly. “I was the producer.”
The recording engineer, as opposed to the producer, is the one person actually responsible for what we hear. The musicians write and perform the music, the producer (at least in the previous century) concerns themself with song selection and arrangement, and the engineer captures the sound. The latitude for personal expression here is incredible: there is the size and shape of the studio room, and its relationship to the microphones. There are all manner of musical instruments, some acoustic, some amplified, and how they sound when recorded. There is a wide spectrum of microphones: ribbon mics, condenser mics, dynamic mics, mics with diaphragms large and small, each contributing a sound engineers variously describe as “dark” or “bright” or having “air on top.” It’s been my experience that most people can’t hear a good performance through bad production. Engineers bear the brunt of that responsibility. So, at least to my mind, Duke Ellington’s dictum “If it sounds good, it is good,” applies to the recording process as much as anything else.
Geoff Emerick died on October 2, 2018. Having engineered late period Beatles records, he was one of the best known and most innovative engineers of the twentieth century. Many modern recording techniques are the result of his work. The best way to illustrate this is to focus our attention on one day: Wednesday April 6, 1966. Emerick was 19. As a 15-year old intern, he had witnessed the Beatles’ first recording session, the one which produced “Love Me Do.” This day was his first as the band’s engineer. He was terrified.
This ‘66 session was the first for the Beatles’ new album, Revolver. The first song to be recorded was also the album’s most sonically ambitious: John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Lennon, never technically minded and always looking for a way to disguise his voice, asked producer George Martin to “make me sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop.”
“Got it,” Martin said. “I’m sure Geoff and I will come up with something.”
Emerick’s solution was brilliant. After securing Martin’s blessing, he instructed the maintenance engineer to wire a certain amplifier to use for Lennon’s vocal. “The studio’s Hammond organ was hooked up to a system called a Leslie,” Emerick recalled in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, “a large wooden box that contained an amp and two sets of revolving speakers, one that carried low bass frequencies and the other that carried high treble frequencies; it was the effect of those spinning speakers that was largely responsible for the characteristic Hammond organ sound. In my mind, I could almost hear what John’s voice might sound like if it were coming from a Leslie.” No one knew exactly what that sound would be, as it had never been done before.
After recording the first take, the band listened to the playback in the control room. The effect worked perfectly. “It’s the Dalai Lennon!” Paul McCartney shouted.
Lennon was amazed and asked for an explanation; he got one he didn’t understand. “Couldn’t we get the same effect by dangling me from a rope and swinging me around the microphone instead?” he asked. It’s hard to imagine now, but Emerick’s lasting contribution here is that he did something that had never been done: Leslie amplifiers were designed to use with Hammond organs, not with human voices. Once this experimental door was opened, any combination of artistry and technology was possible.
Before the day was done, Emerick would make another major contribution to modern sound engineering. To do so, he had to break house rules. EMI, who owned Abbey Road studios, did not allow microphones to be placed closer than two feet from a bass drum. The concentrated “wallop” of low end frequencies can damage sensitive microphones. Excessive low end would also make phonograph needles skip, which is why there are no bass drums on early jazz recordings. Drummers used bass drums, but engineers banned them.
Inspired by the slightly muffled sound of Ringo Starr’s snare drum — a side effect of the heavy smoker keeping his pack of cigarettes handy — Emerick grabbed a nearby wool sweater. “As quickly as I could,” he remembered, “I removed the bass drum’s front skin the one with the famous ‘dropped-T’ Beatles logo on it — and stuffed the sweater inside so that it was flush against the rear beater skin. Then I replaced the front skin and positioned the bass drum mic directly in front of it, angled down slightly but so close that it was almost touching.” He then purposefully overloaded the circuitry of some outboard gear to affect the drum sound. The result was punchy, exciting, and unprecedented.
The heavily compressed drum sound set the template for almost all British pop music for the rest of the decade, from The Jimi Hendrix Experience to Led Zeppelin; the dampened, close-miked kick drum technique is still in use. After Revolver, Emerick went on to engineer the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road.
With his first work day over, Emerick took the waiting car back to his parents’ house, where he lived.
There are home studio plugins for all these outboard effects now. You can run your vocal through a virtual Leslie cabinet, or employ a faux Fairchild limiter to make your drums sound more Beatles-y, or distort your Neumann microphone, or a digital facsimile, to sound like Lennon’s voice on “I Am The Walrus.” But these innovations were made during a time when engineers at Abbey Road wore white lab coats and ties and could be fired for any misuse of studio equipment. Geoff Emerick, who was part of the Beatles’ career when they began using the studio as an instrument, was as much responsible for their iconic sounds as anyone. “He was smart, fun-loving and the genius behind many of the great sounds on our records,” McCartney remembered. “God bless you Geoffrey.”
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.