QUESTION: You took over as the Beatles' engineer from Norman Smith on Wednesday, April 6, 1966. You were twenty years old.
GEOFF EMERICK: You've been studing the Beatles' session book, yes, that would be correct. I'd started at EMI in 1962, the same month that the Beatles went in for their recording test. I was a second engineer, which meant you just operated tape machines. I believe my first session as a second with Norman was for "She Loves You." And then I did a lot of Manfred Mann records with him.
The reason I was named as the Beatles' engineer was because Norman wanted to become a producer. I got along well with George Martin because I could keep my mouth shut. As a first engineer with the Beatles, I started with Revolver.
QUESTION: Do you feel the limitations of the studio can sometimes be a challenge that enhances creativity?
EMERICK: You couldn't put forward a better question. I would go into the studio and sit on a chair while Ringo played, listening to the tonalities. You know the microphones that can enhance, or capture, the different tones you are hearing. It was a challenge and there were certain things I couldn't do. I had to find other ways to make it work.
QUESTION: With Ringo's drum sound, you were milking much closer than had ever been done before. And it's said you stuffed the famous four-headed sweater in the drum and sent the signal through a Fairchild six hundred sixty tube limiter?
EMERICK: Yeah that's true. To get that sound, I'd first go down and listen to Ringo's drums. Put my ear next to the skin, or to the bottom, looking for resonance from the skins. We took the bottom skins off the tom-toms and put the mike up inside. This gave us the slap of the top with no resonance of the bottom skin, what a thought. In my opinion, Revolver was the album to change all sounds. Better than Pepper from a sound point of view.
Prior to that, you probably found one overhead mike, one bass mike, and one snare mike on the drums. Recording mixers only had eight inputs, so we didn't have enough feeds into the board to do much more. We built little premixers and had all sorts of stuff going on.
QUESTION: Was "Tomorrow Never Knows" the first song to use tape loops?
EMERICK: For the Beatles, yes, but I believe George Martin used tape loops before, probably on a Goon Show album or a Spike Milligan record. Basically, that was our first use of a primitive "synthesizer." Each of the Beatles had their own Brennell tape recorders at home to play around with and you could actually block off the erase head on those machines. The tape could pass the record head without it being wiped..
If Paul wanted to play a guitar through it, he could build up a strange new sound. He knew that if you recorded on the loop more than a few times, without the erase head connected, you would whack the original sound. You had to do it quite quickly to get the image you wanted. If you went on too long, you'd just get a mess.
The seagull sound on "Tomorrow Never Knows" was just a looped guitar strum, but when we put the loop backwards that's what it sounded like. You have to remember that our tape machines then were about three feet wide and four feet high and we had to put one loop on each machine. For that song we must have used about eight machines. You had to lace up each machine and then hold the loop out with a pencil to keep it going around. We had the engineers from the maintenance department just holding the loops and then we put the feeds on faders. You just placed the tune and because we knew which loops had which notes you could just blend them in.
QUESTION: Are you going to hear more recordings from that period?
EMERICK: My wife, Nicole, and I worked on the famous Beatles Sessions albu, which has been bootlegged. It was going to be an issue from EMI, with lots of outtakes. We worked on that in Montserrat, but there was never permission to release it. The album does exist, with a really good alternative version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." It was a good album and one day I'm sure it will be issued.
QUESTION: Have all the original Beatles tapes been archived on digital?
EMERICK: Yes. The original master tapes sit in tins, you know. But they have been transferred. The textures and tonal qualities on the CDs though, are so different they don't even resemble the original records.
QUESTION: One of your last Beatles sessions as engineer was "The Ballad of John and Yoko," which was also the first Beatles stereo single in Britain. It's interesting that it was only John and Paul playing, because Ringo was making a film and George was out of the country.
EMERICK: Yes, that seesion was put together in about two days. Malcolm Davies, the cutting engineer at Apple, phoned up and told me he couldn't believe that track. We were always into the sounds, the top of the snare, the bass. Malcolm used to work at EMI and Abbey Road and then at Apple, and when he got the tape he couldn't believe the sound on the snarefor the first time, because it lent itself to the sound of that period. It wasan AKG KM-56, a condensor, which i had never done before.
QUESTION: Since you worked mainly on four-track machines with the Beatles, did you have to do alot of ping-ponging?
EMERICK: Some, but not a lot. I was talking with George Martin and he was recently listening to some of the old tapes. He couldn't believe what we were actually laying down on one track; bass, drums, guitar, voices with and without echo. It was just live recording with all the finished embellishments. That's the way we worked.
QUESTION: What about all the rumors that the Beatles were putting subliminal messages on their records?
EMERICK: Nonsense, not true.
QUESTION: It seems to me that it was Revolver where all the Beatles' wierdness began.
EMERICK: Revolver was the first album that engineered. It was, "well, Geoff's the engineer. we don't want the piano to sound like a piano. We don't want the guitar to sound like a guitar and we don't want the drums to sound like drums." This was mainly coming from Lennon.
QUESTION: Was this irritating at all?
EMERICK: Not really - it was a challenge. That's when we started using the Leslie speaker. When we first put a voice and guitar through those speakers, it was the most amazing sound ever. It was so tuneful and melodic. "Wow, Let's make a whole album of this!" We were creating all these sounds without magic boxes. All the plug-in boxers now are derived from what had to be done mechanically, or by stretching tapes, chopping tapes up, or slowing tapes down.
QUESTION: Is it true you actually had John suspended from the ceiling, swinging around for a vocal?
EMERICK: it was his idea, but it didn't really work out. He'd gone through a funny stage at that time. We'd put the voice through the Leslie and the speker evolved around. I think he once asked George if he could just plug a voice feed from himself and swing around from the ceiling to get a similiar effect. George explained that he would have to have an operation to put a voice box in his throat and have a jack plug attatched to his neck.
QUESTION: You and George Martin must have spent a lot of time together on your side of the glass, observing the antics.
EMERICK: Yes, a lot, but the antics weren't too bad, really. Experimentation and playfulness were into the makings of those records, which you don't find a lot now.
QUESTION: Were you part of the raids on the tape libraries for "Revolution Number Nine"?
EMERICK: Oh, yes.
QUESTION: Were you actually taking library tapes and cutting them up?
EMERICK: It wasn't as bad as that. We were just taking tapes from the EMI sound effects library. You were allowed to use the tapes and we did.
QUESTION: Abbey Road was your final album with the Beatles...
EMERICK: Yes, and that was the first time we used a transistorized recording console. EMI made it and at that my point I could not re-create the bass drum or snare drum sounds, guitar sounds. Previously I had used tube consoles and tube tape machines. And then we got the new batch of Studer tape machines which were half tube and half transistor.
If you listen to "Paperback Writer," a good example, you really hear the kick of the bass drum. There was no way you could re-create through a transistorized desk. There are many theories - unnatural harmonics, distortion, whatever - but we couldn't create those sounds anymore. The new desk was a lot smoother, a lot mellower, which gave Abbey Road its texture. It's still a great album.
QUESTION: Let's talk about some of your recent projects; the McCartney Unplugged project for MTV which was also released as an album. What technical tools did you employ?
EMERICK: Well, it was very simple. First of all, Paul phoned up and asked if I would like to work on this MTV acoustic project, mikes into desks and so forth. There is one particular mixing console I really like, the old API board. Record Plant's remote truck had one and we used it for the America albums here in Los Angeles. There's another in a mobile truck in England; it still sounds so clean and good. Paul wanted to rehearse at his studio for three days. I suggested that we do that with the mobile, get all the sounds and EQ and just go down to the television studio in London with the truck and away we go. That's what we did.
There were no overdubs. We took it down to multitrack and also to DAT. The actual issued album came from the DAT.
QUESTION: You were pleased with the results?
EMERICK: Sure I was, sounds superb. I meant, of course, doing all the echoes at the right time and taking them off. I wasn't under any great direction from Paul; just do it. What you hear on the album is exactly as he sang it. No overdubs on vocals or instruments.
QUESTION: Out of all the sounds you came up with for the Beatles, is there any one you are especially proud of?
EMERICK: I guess it would be, "A Day In The Life." The gradual long fade, done manually, was monumental. To make that end crescendo loud, it wasn't written the orchestra was told to go from A to E in thirty-seven bars and do the best they could. I was playing the faders as the song progressed and realizing that what Iwanted was another six dB by the time I got to the end. I pulled the whole thing way up. I'm proud of doing that - how else could you have done it?
QUESTION: Because you were working with the Beatles, did you have the clout to do whatever you wanted?
EMERICK: Oh yes, we could get away with just about anything. With the recording of the drums, I wanted to move closer with the mike to get the impact. EMI's directive was to place the mike about three feet away. Whilst I was doing this, I was sent a letter from the technical division that you couldn't do this because of the air pressure against the diaphragm of the microphone, but they would give us the permission nonetheless to do it.
QUESTION: Just as Norman went on producing, how did you make that transition?
EMERICK: Well, I had left EMI and was working with Apple. The record companies were relying so much on the engineer to carry the sessions. The few of us that had some sort of clout could say we wanted a piece of the action. We were not only engineering, we were making the record, with all the decisions necaessary.