QUESTION: The production values of your work with the Beatles were certainly very unusual for pop records. Did your early comedy records influence your later work?
GEORGE MARTIN: I was bound to, I suppose. You do what you do and do it in the way you think is right. So you build up a technique over the years and i suppose a lot of that rubbed off like "Sgt. Pepper" and "Yellow Submarine." When I left EMI in 1965 I thought I might be leaving behind some young people who were pretty good. I felt it would be smart to take them with me. Ronny Richards and Peter Sullivan came in and I asked my mate John [Burgess] to join our merry band. The four of us set up what is now AIR studios in London.
JOHN BURGESS: I remember George saying to me, "The reason we're all getting together is that I am getting older and you guys will have all the success and keep me in the manner to which I am accustomed." As it happened, the Beatles turned out to keep everybody. We all had individual successes, but obviously the biggest earner was the Beatles.
MARTIN: We put everything back into the company, that's how AIR Studios began.
QUESTION: How did you come up with the name?
MARTIN: Air stands for Associated Indepedant Recording. We thought of "AIR" first and then figured out the words to fit it.
BURGESS: The studio opened in October 1969. We'll be twenty years old next year.
QUESTION: What about Montserrat?
MARTIN: That didn't happen until ten years later, 1979.
BURGESS: George is always coming up with crazy ideas. Previous to Montserrat, we spent a year and a half ...
MARTIN: Two years.
BURGESS: Wandering around the world trying to find a boat big enough to put a studio on. We went to Malta ...
MARTIN: Iceland, Yogoslavia, Poland ...
BURGESS: Trying to find a boat so that George's dream studio would come to fruition.
MARTIN: And we did find a boat, marvelous, would have been fantastic. One hundred and sixty feet long, twin screw ...
BURGESS: A Yogoslavian ferry boat. A very good bargain, actually.
MARTIN: I wish we would've done it.
QUESTION: Doesn't the sea air present problems?
MARTIN: No, not humidity. In Montserrat we got sulphur springs and that causes a problem, but very similiar to a boat. You can overcome these things. The only problem with a boat is that it would never really be possible to make a recording while under way. You can isolate most sounds, but you cannot get rid of the low frequencies of a diesal engine in a steel structure. Virtually impossible. So you would always have to be an anchor for recording.
It would have been a marvelous ocean-going studio, but oil prices tripled in 1973 and it meant the overhead of running a diesal-powered ship would increase enormously. I was persuaded to abandon the project and we built AIR Montserrat.
QUESTION: How's it working out?
MARTIN: It's a wonderful place ...
QUESTION: Only one room?
MARTIN: Yes, only one room, but that's what we wanted. Basically, the whole point of going there is to have the place to yourself. Once you are there, you own the place. You don't have people running around.
On the other hand, we've found that in the London studios people like meeting up with other artists while recording.
BURGESS: Paul McCartney enjoys playing on other people's sessions and getting feedback from other musicians.
QUESTION: You started off as an oboe player, didn't you?
MARTIN: Well, I started off as a writer, and then turned to the oboe, "the ill wind that nobody blows good."
QUESTION: Did the oboe influence your development asa musician?
MARTIN: It improved my diaphram. Not really, no. I just chose the oboe because I liked it. It;s a difficult instrument to play.
QUESTION: You were the first producer I ever met, Abbey Road was the first studio I saw, and my first session with the night Ringo was tuning in the BBC for the track on "I Am the Walrus." Later on in Scotland, I was studing King Lear and realized the song has lines from act 4 the play. I don't remember you well, we met, but I was so overwhelmed with the experience. That night, John seemed to be runing the show ...
MARTIN: I wonder if I was there?
QUESTION: Oh, you were there, but you seemed more like a father figure. Ringo was reading a comic book and tuning the radio and John had his hands on these big gearshift faders. The next year, 1968, I was invited back for "Revolution Number Nine," and I don't remember seeing you; George was raiding the EMI tape vaults, John was with Yoko by this time, I learned about splicing, and there was a flurry of activity with huge tape loops across the room. Was there a period of change, of participation, as a producer?
MARTIN: Yes, the accent changed, but both occassions you mentioned was when John was experimenting. John liked playing around, but he was not a very good technician. He couldn't handle equipment all that well, but he was always trying to get new and different effects. Now the King Lear thing you're talking about, we used some of that on the record.
QUESTION: Yes, tuned right in off the radio and mixed in.
MARTIN: "I Am the Walrus" was at the mixing stage when you were there. It had already been recorded with cellos and horns and so on. "Revolution Number Nine" was a melange of sounds. John was moving the faders during "Walrus" because someone had to do something at random.
After the Beatles ended, John went on to do even wilder things. He didn't have the great toy shop at Abbey Road, but he used to bring me cassettes. "George, can we make a record out of this?" It would be Yoko screaming in a bag, you know, that was the kind of thing you were seing in those sessions. In fact, it was in infancy there. I'm not surprised that you would think he was running the show, but he wasn't really running the show. He was being allowed to indulge himself.
Those sessions had grown out of something before that. "Tomorrow Never Knows," which started not with John but with Paul. Paul had a Grundig tape recorder, and he found that by removing the erase head and putting a loop of tape on he could saturate the tape with eternal sound by putting it into a record. He could do just one lick on guitar and it would go round and round and round till it saturated itself and you'd have a loop. He would bring in a loop and make some wierd sounds. The other boys - John, George, and Ringo - would go away and do the same thing out of it all.
We would assemble them on different machines all over the place, listen to them forwards, backwards, at different speeds, and select which ones we liked and then have them continually going. It was like a primitive synthesizer. You had a loop turning over and it was making a sound. If you opened up fader, you would hear it. That's when the mix became performance. While mixing, whatever you brought up at the time would be there. We wouldn't know what point of the loop would appear. It was a random thing. So "Tomorrow Never Knows" can never be remixed again, because all those things happened at that time in that particular way. It's one of the greatest things about that record. It isa page in history that happened there, can't happen again.
QUESTION: I like that.
MARTIN: So did John.
QUESTION: This brings to mind the CD reissue of the work ...
MARTIN: With "Tomorrow Never Knows" all we could do was take that existing master and clean it up a bit.
QUESTION: Have you done any other enhancements?
MARTIN: We actually remixed Help! because it wasn't very good originally and Rubber Soul as well. Most of the latter ones were really quite well recorded, if I do say so myself, a just required a little bit of cleaning up for CD.
As for the earlier ones, you know there is a controversary about mono verses stereo in the early records. We might well go back and make some stereo versions.
BURGESS: It's strange, you're talking about twenty-five years ago, and people still want to hear those songs in stereo form. I don't think the stereo could be very sophisticated anyway, could it?
MARTIN: The problem is that a lot of people have heard the bad stereo and like it, they've been indoctrinated. People have said to me it's great to hear John and Paul coming out of one speaker and all the backing out of the other. I think it's terrible, myself. There's no way I would have agreed to having those records being issued as stereo in that form. But if they do want a stereo, we'll do one.
QUESTION: How did the mixup occur on the American releases?
MARTIN: Well, all the early records were done on twin-track for mono records. Never intended to be stereo. But they were issued in America by taking a twin-track tape and using it as a stereo master. The first albums came out over here by Capitol, without my jurisdiction. When I discovered what was happening, I protested against it. By this time I had left EMI and the Beatles were at a distance from EMI. When I heard what happened, I was told that it was because no Beatle record must be changed and it must be put out exactly as it was. Some idiot had taken this to mean that those two twin-track masters should be put out as stero, and, of course, it was never intended. The y said they had strict instructions not to play about with the masters.
QUESTION: Getting back to those moments of spontaneity and fun in the studio do you still ...
MARTIN: We still have fun in the studio, sure.
BURGESS: Not as much ...
MARTIN: No, not as much as we used to. There's no fun in taking three days to get a snare drum sound, which some people do ...
QUESTION: Is the role of the producer changing?
MARTIN: The role of the producer has already changed. There are more engineer/producers now. I'm the old fashioned type, a producer who is a musician and likes to work with an engineer who's an engineer. I think that the two roles are difficult to combine. I feel that the guy who concentrates on the art - the production and the music - shouldn't be bothered with whether the microphone is on the blink or not, or whether the EQ switch is dirty or not. I like to say, that's your job.
Similarly, I think the engineer shouldn't be concentrating on his work and have to deal with the tantrums of a drummer who is feeling a pain in his back. There are distinct problems, but if you have these guys working in harmony, it's the best possible team you can get. Having said that, the majority of producers, now are, in fact engineer/producers. Some of them do it extraordinarily well.
As for the future, people are tending to more things themselves. I'm afraid that maybe I've had something to do with that, but i think that the catchet, the role, the name of producer has become a bit too important. Because of that, people say, "I want to produce. I want to do this myself. Look at my album, I produced it myself!" It's a boast and I dont think it should be. I think they should say, "Let's get a good producer, a good one to help us." The star is still the writer and the singer is still the most important part of the record."