A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
By John D
Well, here’s what can only be called a total geek fest! Recording The Beatles, by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, is the result of over a decade of research, and it shows. It is a thorough examination of the studio equipment and recording techniques used by the band, and their engineers and producers, to create the sounds on their classic albums.
The authors’ exhaustive research involved talking to former Abbey Road staff about their memories and recollections, looking at surviving EMI paperwork and documentation, the extensive photographic record, and the recording equipment, much of which survives in private collections (Abbey Road, like most studios, having sold or discarded much of their older equipment in the 1970s to make room for newer designs; its historical significance was not recognised at the time). Visits to Abbey Road Studios also offered information by way of architectural, acoustical, and structural details.
That The Beatles ended up recording in Abbey Road Studios at the time they did, and ended up with a sympathetic, encouraging, and enabling producer in the shape of George Martin (along with innovative engineers like Geoff Emerick, Ken Scott, et al.) was an enormous stroke of luck. What they accomplished together was groundbreaking, pushing recording equipment to, and beyond, its limits, and inventing techniques, many of which became standard studio practices.
The book is split into four sections;
Section I looks at EMI Abbey Road Studios, in its rather incongruous setting of residential St John’s Wood, its features and facilities, and its personnel. It includes detailed looks at the 3 main studios (studio 2 being most closely associated with The Beatles), their uses, and their acoustical properties and treatments, and profiles of the tape operators, engineers, and technical staff who worked with The Beatles. There are plenty of studio plans and photographs of the studio staff from the time.
Section II focuses on recording equipment, looking at mixing desks (from the early 4-track valve units, to the first transistorised 8-track desk installed at Abbey road and used to record the album of the same name), outboard gear (compressors, limiters, equalizers, etc.), microphones (Abbey Road’s microphone collection is large and legendary), tape machines (from 2-track to 4-track and, eventually, to the studio’s first 8-track machine in 1968), and speakers and amplifiers (used for monitoring recordings in the control room, and for mixing and mastering).
Section III looks at effects (echo chambers and tape echo, automatic double-tracking, etc.), and studio instruments (Abbey Road’s collection of pianos, organs, various other keyboard and percussion instruments, many used on The Beatles’ recordings).
Section IV deals with production. When the band made their early recordings, they recorded all instruments and vocals together onto 2-track tape, without using any of the moveable baffles in the studio to separate the instruments from one another in order to achieve a ‘live’ sound. Limited overdubbing was possible by recording a complete band performance one of the two tracks on the tape, and then adding a double tracked vocal, or maybe a guitar or piano part on the other. As time went on, and 4-track and then 8-track recording became available, backing tracks could be recorded first and vocals and solos, etc., recorded later. Arrangements would become richer and more complex, with more microphones being placed on the drum kit (which is why the drums become clearer and more prominent as their recordings progress), more acoustic separation of instruments, and string sections, and later, orchestras being employed on some songs.
Add to this the innovative use by George Martin and the Abbey Road engineers of techniques like close-miking (placing a microphone very close to the sound source, a novel approach at the time, for which written approval was required by studio management), especially of drums, and the use of unusual effects and extreme equalization (tone control), and engineers in other studios the world over were at a loss as to how The Beatles achieved the sounds on their recordings.
This book appeals to me very much indeed, as it’s full of extremely detailed information and replete with beautiful colour pictures of the equipment in question, and I’m one of these people who loves poring over pictures of vintage mixing desks, connectors, outboard gear, and microphones. I know I’m not the only one because, in 2012 and 2013, the authors of the book did a series of talks in Abbey Road Studio 2 and, although tickets sold very quickly, I managed to get some and went with a similarly Beatle obsessed friend. The talks were great and, as we stood on that hallowed ground, I looked around and found it comforting to be surrounded by a hundred or so other people for whom standing in a large, whitewashed room with parquet flooring, and being surrounded by vintage recording equipment, constitutes a good time. It’s always nice to know you’re not alone.
Recording The Beatles by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan (Houston: Curvebender Publishing, 2009) ISBN: 978-0-9785200-0-7 RRP $100
John D is the husband of Book Fox Kirsty D. His earliest memory is hearing his parents playing Hello, Goodbye by The Beatles when he was but a toddler. These days he’s a musician and music teacher.