The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

13 January 2007

Bending the curve

Finally hearing Love, a reimagining, if you will, of the Beatles' recorded catalogue done originally at the behest of the Cirque du Soleil guys, reminded me that last fall I'd gotten a copy of the enormous Recording the Beatles book, and it's about time I filled you in on some of the details.

This item caught my eye at once. It's a letter from Chief Engineer Bill Livy to Studio Manager Alan Stagg relaying George Martin's misgivings about EMI's new 8-track tape recorders, dated 14 May 1968:

This machine, in common with all other 8-track machine at present available, does not include all the facilities which are present on the Magnetofon and Studer 4 track machines. Our multitrack recording technique depends largely upon these facilities, so that careful consideration should be given to the desirability of using this machine in its present condition.

The drawbacks at the present moment are:—

  1. Synchronous replay is available on each track separately, but only by switching off the normal tape replay of that track.

  2. No synchronous replay track combining is possible.

  3. No timing clock is fitted.

In addition, the mixer in [Studio] No.2 will record only 4 tracks simultaneously and with normal setting-up only 4 Line Outs from the tape machine can be connected to the monitoring circuits.

In view of these points, Mr. Martin said that the facilities existing on the 4 track machines were essential and therefore he would not use the 8-track for the Beatles sessions. He would like to be informed as soon as the modifications necessary to incorporate these facilities had been carried out.

In the end, the Beatles' fascination with new technology overrode George Martin's concerns — they recorded "Hey Jude" that summer at Trident Studios on eight tracks — and they requested an 8-track machine from EMI for the remote recording of the Let It Be project. EMI for some reason balked, and George Harrison, who had bought an 8-track machine of his own, arranged to have it delivered to Apple HQ, though by then EMI had had a change of heart, or something. The Abbey Road sessions were all done on 8-track.

One recurring story about "Hey Jude" is that about three minutes into the track you can hear John grumbling an expletive. Malcolm Toft, Trident's house engineer, explained what happened:

Barry Sheffield engineered "Hey Jude," but I mixed it when he went on holiday. John Lennon says a very rude word about halfway through the song. At 2:59 (just after "...let her under your skin") you will hear a "whoa" from him in the background. About two seconds later you will hear "F---ing hell!" This was because when he was doing a vocal backing, Barry sent him the foldback level too loud and he threw the cans [headphones] on the ground and uttered the expletive. But because it had been bounced down with the main vocal, it could not be removed. I just managed to bring the fader down for a split second on the mix to try to lessen the effect.

It was more neatly excised on the Love remix, but then we have better tools today; I once managed to edit the click-THUMPs out of a cracked 45 to get a passable CD copy, and I'm hardly in George Martin's league.

And then there's this:

The middle section of ["The End"] ... is a patchwork of edits and duplicated measures. For instance, the backing track and "love you" vocals heard from 0:46—0:53, are in fact exact duplicates of those heard behind the guitar solo from 1:02—1:09 (though to partially hide this fact, Geoff Emerick panned the vocals Right in the newly inserted measures, panning them back Left just before the edit into the guitar solo section).

Recording the Beatles, by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew, is available from Curvebender Publishing. "Curve Bender," incidentally, was the nickname of the EMI RS56 Universal Tone Control, a three-band equalizer with adjustable center frequencies, gain, and width.

Posted at 12:22 PM to Tongue and Groove

How did you like Love? I've been wanting to get my hands on a copy after hearing an NPR's All Songs Considered episode devoted to it.

Posted by: Sarah at 4:45 PM on 13 January 2007

I'm of two minds about it. Part of me wants to yell "Blasphemy!" I am compelled to admit, though, that some bits of it are positively brilliant. The mashup of "Drive My Car," "The Word" and "What You're Doing" may be the best thing here; these songs fit together perfectly. For "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," they went back to an unplugged version: just George and guitar, which they then sweetened with strings. It's quite lovely.

Posted by: CGHill at 5:37 PM on 13 January 2007