Experiments in Sound and Sense: The Beatles (1966-69) – Equipment

McCartney's Höfner bass and Harrison's Gretsch...

II. The Beatles – Equipment

“The people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion”

“We’d finished touring in ’66 to go into the studio where we could hear each other… and create any fantasy that came out of anybody’s brain.”[1] This was precisely the moment in which the studio became simply another instrument: a limitless resource for the most creative minds with the best technicians available to mould imagination into reality. Although the technical limitations encompassing their studio equipment at the time were many, this often resulted in the many revolutionary recording techniques we hear today.

To illustrate, Lennon complained repeatedly at the prospect of always having to record a second vocal part when double tracking songs, and it was thus during the recording of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ that engineer Ken Townsend constructed the technique known as A.D.T or Automated Double Tracking, achieved by duplicating the existing lead vocal out of phase on a second tape machine during mixing.[2]

Now with touring responsibilities tucked away, the Beatles’ concerns were no longer with the performance aspect of their songs and this resulted in limitless if somewhat exhaustive dependence on overdubs of various samples, sound effects and loops; either homemade or from the EMI library, either enriching, clarifying or sometimes degrading the musical texture.

Moreover, with the development of improved electronic instruments and new electrics from Fender and Gibson, they simply couldn’t wait to try them out in their latest songs. Although not generally associative, synthesisers were now in abundance: the Mellotron is an electro-mechanical polyphonic keyboard used to create the brass and string samples in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and the introduction to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.[3] The Moog analog synthesiser can be heard in ‘Because’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ echoing each songs guitar lines, and is also the instrument responsible for the wind effect heard in the denouement of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’.

Whilst in India the only available western resource were their Martin D28 acoustic guitars, which justifies the vast surplus of sparse acoustic guitar tracks that feature on The White Album and the thin texture that frequents ‘Julia’, ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ and ‘Blackbird’. This heavy exposure to Indian culture also cultivated the tamboura and sitar.

It must be considered that the Beatles used four-track recording right up until after Sgt. Pepper was released and eight-track finally became available, although they weren’t to exploit the luxury fully until The White Album. And whilst this suggests Abbey Road as rather primitive for the planet’s biggest band, it was still according to McCartney a place they loved to go and hang out, providing the Beatles records with a signature sound that became synonymous with English eccentricity apparent in the charming strings of ‘I Am The Walrus’ or lyrical references to the House of Lords, Edgar Allen Poe, the National Trust and ‘English gardens’.

John Lennon however was rarely happy with studio results, stating outright in 1968 that ‘the backing I think of early on never comes off. With ‘Tomorrow Never Knows I’d imagined in my head that in the background you would hear thousands of monks chanting.’[4] And whilst he retains that ‘this was impractical, of course, and we did something different’,[5] George Martin and his engineering team made a fine attempt at replicating this demand with the resources available; in particular was Geoff Emerick who routed Lennon’s vocal through Abbey Road’s Leslie speaker cabinet, the first time such a feat was challenged and of course the effect was remarkable, however it can only be heard from 1.27 onwards in the final track and its composer still remained unsatisfied.

In terms of production resources, varispeeding was a popular technique employed extensively by The Beatles where the tempo of the track was either increased to a higher key, or decreased to a lower key through tempo change. Electronically altering timbres like this explains the uncharacteristic key choices for songs that were slowed down like ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ to Eb minor, enhancing the lazy endeavour, or sped up to Ab major in ‘Piggies’[6], though admittedly these aren’t so noticeable by ear. Whereas songs like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ in Db major are betrayed by the ‘larkish’ colour of McCartney’s voice after being sped up a tone.[7]

The rather collage construction of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ proves a miraculous example of successful varispeeding and studio incentive combined. Despite both being a semitone apart having been recorded at different speeds, the first section of the original was seamlessly linked with the second half of the newest recording since the difference in tempi between the two tracks was in nearly exact ratio to the difference in their keys, and by varispeeding the two takes to approximately the same tempo Martin and his engineer Geoff Emerick were triumphant.[8]

Before eventually extending the idea of reversal to song composition (see ‘Because’), the Beatles applied this device to the majority of recorded output since its discovery during the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ sessions and its debut application in the ‘Rain’ fadeout.[9] In terms of sound editing, it yields difficult rhythms coupled with interesting and unpredictable articulation in items such as Harrison’s backwards guitar solo for ‘I’m Only Sleeping’.

This obsessive attitude towards the latest innovations though at times extreme, certainly affiliates the band as pioneers in the various fields: for when one perceives reversed guitar or severe stereo imaging Beatles references are automatically made.

The Beatles entire back catalogue is now available to download on iTunes.

by James Godwin – December 10th, 2010

[2] Everett, p.34

[3] Pinder, Mike, ‘History of the Mellotron’. http://www.mikepinder.com/mellotron.shtml

[5] Everett, p.35

[6] “The guitar demo on anthology 3, disc 1, 28 October 1996, shows the song to have been written in G, thus the final version must have been varispeeded up a semitone”. Revolution in the Head, p.318

[7] Macdonald, p.221

[8] Macdonald, p.218

[9] Macdonald, p.198

Copyright © 2010. James Godwin. All rights reserved.