Logo  
  | home | authors | calendar colophon | links | newsgroups | newsfeed | new | printer version |  
volume 21
may 2018

"Their production will be second to none"

 





  The recording studio and its aesthetics on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
by Francesco Brusco
Previous
  Last June the Beatles' eighth album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band celebrated its 50 years. The success of the album marked the rise of the recording studio as an important instrument for the production of popular music as well as a recognition of the role of the producer. Discussing both Abbey Road and George Martin, Francesco Brusco here highlights the influence of the recording studio and its aesthetics.
 
1 Left: George Martin in Abbey Road Studio Two during a rehearsal of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" (28 February 1967; E.M.I. Studios promo photo shoot)

Making use of the recording studio. The city of Liverpool includes among its artistic progenies a certain Francis Barraud, not a towering figure in the history of art, but still remembered for an image destined to become famous worldwide. After the death of his brother Mark, he had inherited from the latter his faithful Jack Russell named Nipper, and a phonograph, from which the dog would have continued to hear Mark's voice. The painting that portrays Nipper in front of the sounding horn of the phonograph, made in 1898, will be the emblem of the Gramophone Company, established in the same year and otherwise known as His Master's Voice.

On November 12, 1931, the same company, recently renamed EMI, inaugurated its recording studios, converting a Georgian house built exactly one hundred years earlier, along a tree-lined street in the London borough of St. John's Wood: Abbey Road.

  The 'master's voice' has always been part of the events directly related to the artistic and musical creation, although with different volumes from time to time. One of the underestimated factors in the making of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles' eighth album which celebrated its 50 years last June, is that during its creation the band and their producer George Martin probably enjoyed the greatest possible independence — still in relative terms — towards the EMI structure, which will eventually benefit from the fruits of this circumscribed freedom.
  Pending the renewal of the contract for which their manager Brian Epstein will start the negotiations in January 1967 — aiming at a sensitive retouch of the paltry royalties allocated to the group up to that point — the Beatles are virtually released from EMI when they start to record their new album, on November 24, 1966. This situation, in addition to the greater decision-making power deriving from their success, allows them to approach their new production without the asphyxiating deadlines of earlier projects.
Having walked down forever from the stage three months before, they can take advantage of Abbey Road studios for a virtually unlimited time; furthermore, EMI owns the studios, so they can carry on the work without the burden of additional costs. [1]
  If the contractual obligations of the band are only suspended pending redefinition, those of their producer towards EMI had been already formally rescinded in August 1965: fed-up with the economic treatment reserved for him by the company, Martin decides to start his career as an independent record producer, founding AIR (Associated Independent Recording) with his partner John Burgess, still carrying on — with greater autonomy — his work with the Beatles.
  Brian Epstein himself has his contract expiring in October 1967, and its renewal does not appear to be certain, by virtue of the ever smaller space conceivable for him in the future of a band that will never perform live again: of that future, sadly, he will never be a part, passing away on 27 August of that same year, in circumstances never clarified.
  Outlined the bureaucratic situation in which the Beatles and George Martin start working on Sgt. Pepper within the walls of Abbey Road Studios, let us concentrate on how their working method influences the aesthetics and the semantics of the album.
2 Right: George Martin and the Beatles in the Abbey Road Studio during the recording of Sgt. Pepper's

Arrangement and orchestration. The '50s and '60s mark the beginning of an important evolution in the role of the A&R director, [2] the recording producer; together with the increasingly widespread figure of the independent producer — with George Martin following the trail of Joe Geek, Lieber & Stoller and the controversial Phil Spector — it is the very role within the studios which changes significantly.

From being a mere technical supervisor, a work organizer, responsible for mixing, editing and mastering, the producer assumes greater weight in the arrangement phase, when it comes to dressing the composition.

On Sgt. Pepper, George Martin's role in the arrangements and orchestrations proves to be of crucial importance and of absolute prestige. Its range of action gets unprecedented elasticity, ranging from the "simple" translation of the authors' ideas — the visions expressed by John's highly bizarre language, or the more precise melodies sung by Paul, for which Martin acts as a transcriber — to real composition and, quite often, instrumental performance, in a framework of almost absolute trust from the band.

2.1 George Martin's Hippie Symphony. Unlike most of his colleagues', George Martin's scores, stand out not just for beauty and imagination, but for their sense of measure too: whether he writes for three clarinets or for an entire orchestra, his reserve and his respect for the song are absolute.
  Many of his most elegant ideas are almost imperceptible, subliminal: shocked, even after fifty years, from the first orchestral crescendo in A Day In The Life, we are barely aware of the role played by the same orchestra before the following climax; and only a careful concentration can make us discern where the orchestra ends and where the Indian instruments begin on Harrison's Within You Without You. Nevertheless, subtracting these elements from the amalgam would highlight their importance in the sound framework of these songs: quoting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, even for the richest arrangements, there seems to be "the exact number of necessary notes".
  At different points on the record, George Martin's work adds a semantic value to the musical message, coloring it with different connotations. From the very opening track, it is by means of the four French horns — which he arranges with extreme simplicity on an otherwise hard-rock tune — that the listener can literally see materialized the four musicians in military band clothes on the album cover, being wound up in front of an early 20th century orchestral podium. The same happens on When I'm 64 as it already occurred on Penny Lane, where several instruments behave like musical symbols for the characters of the lyrics: e.g., the double bass which "mimics" the banker "sitting waiting for a trim". And what is the rapid chromatic descending scale during Henry the Horse's waltz, if not an imitation of its nitrite?
  Beyond its musical function, the use of the orchestra on Sgt. Pepper conceals a fluctuating psychological approach between an ecumenical desire for openness to the world, quintessence of hippie philosophy, and a not too unconscious feeling of competition and revenge towards a cultural establishment from which the Beatles — especially McCartney — seek approval and recognition. In the two aforementioned passages, in particular, the band and George Martin force the orchestra to face not only different musical concepts — rock, Indian music — but, above all, its own 'totems and taboos' from which not even the Avantgarde, shaking it from the inside, has still managed to emancipate it.
If on Within You Without You, Eric Gruenberg and his colleagues have to partecipate in a dialogue held in an almost unknown language challenging them even to renounce equal temperament, in the culminating moment of A Day In The Life these musicians, linked by antonomasia to the score, are even asked to improvise, [3] moreover (sacrilege) dressed in carnival clothes: [4]
"Although the Beatles were most certainly not mocking the musicians in attendance, they were satirizing the orchestra's position as establishment culture. The Beatles always saw themselves in competition, and they strove with songs such as A Day in the Life to earn the recognition from the very establishment that they themselves rejected." [5]
  Perhaps it will be right the drasticity of these actions to make them achieve the intended results.
2.2 The smell of sawdust. In addition to the orchestra, what characterizes prologue and epilogue is the simulation of a real audience. It is particularly interesting, especially on the opening track, to observe its use. It starts with a buzz of people waiting, while the instrumentalists give a final check to their tuning. During the bridge, the intervention of the French horns is greeted by a thunderous applause and a sudden roar of laughter: one wonders what the audience is laughing at, and the choice to insert this fragment makes us prefigure it as the first of many clues indicating the impossibility to fully understand the content of the album. When Billy Shears is about to hit the scene, the applauses become ovations and screams, bringing us back ironically (and literally, being extracted from a Beatles live recording at the Hollywood Bowl) to Beatlemania, from which the band probably can not separate completely.
Most of these effects are taken from the recordings for Beyond The Fringe — a comedy from the early '60s, starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett ­ — made by George Martin himself and stored in the EMI archives. These signs reappear only at the beginning of side B to "downplay" the seriousness of Within You Without You, returning at the end to reinforce the idea of ​​a live grand finale. Wilfrid Mellers, in his review published by The New Statesman the day after the release of Sgt. Pepper, [6] notices echoes of Momente, a Stockhausen's work, whose composition had begun in 1962. The music critic evidently ignores a source much closer to the Beatles' environment: in that same 1967, on 9 January, the Byrds release the single So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star, whose "virtual" screams have undoubtedly hit the ears of Lennon and McCartney, bound by sincere friendship to Crosby and McGuinn.
  But if the Byrds deny Pepper's fake audience the status of "absolute premiere", the latter acquires an infinitely greater semantic value, just for how it is organically inserted in the musical discourse. On Sgt. Pepper sound effects and loops are never isolated events, taking indeed part in the general sense of the album. The most obvious embodiment of this principle is Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
  This track deploys the most visionary collection of sound effects on Pepper, while keeping the rhythmic base stable, in line with the principle of holding one thing while another is moving. Music reviewers have often referred to Mr. Kite as George Martin's most imaginative proof as an arranger: his production certainly proves more inspired than Lennon's lyrics, copied almost verbatim from a vintage poster bought in Sevenoaks, Kent, during the shooting of Strawberry Fields Forever promotional film. That text, however, is the starting point for the impressionistic sound watercolor created by Sir George to satisfy one of John's most famous and insane requests: "I want to smell the sawdust".
  And in order to realize this synaesthesia, an organ and an harmonium are not enough; the intuition for the collage that gives the song its amazing ending is once again able to conjure up the setting: the circus, the fairground from the Victorian age. The sensations evoked by this sound kaleidoscope are all the more vivid when one imagines the artisanal way in which they were created, in an era so far away from today's technology:
"'Beatles songs were quite simple in the early days,' says George Martin. 'You couldn't play around with them too much. But by 1967 we were building sound pictures and my role had changed — it was now to interpret those pictures and work out how best to get them down on tape. Paul was fine — he could express what he wanted, the sounds he wanted to have. But John was less musically articulate. He'd make whooshing noises and try to describe what only he could hear in his head, saying he wanted a song "to sound like an orange." When we first worked on Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! John had said that he wanted to "smell the sawdust on the floor," wanted to taste the atmosphere of the circus. I said to him "What we need is a calliope." "A what?" "Steam whistles, played by a keyboard."' So George Martin looked around for an authentic steam organ, but only automatic models were available, played by punched cards. There were no hand operated models around. The fairground sound would have to be created inside Abbey Road using other equipment. 'I knew we needed a backwash, a general mush of sound,' says Martin, 'like if you go to a fairground, shut your eyes and listen: rifle shots, hurdy-gurdy noises, people shouting and — way in the distance — just a tremendous chaotic sound. So I got hold of old calliope tapes, playing Stars and Stripes Forever and other Sousa marches, chopped the tapes up into small sections and had Geoff Emerick throw them up in the air, reassembling them at random.' 'I threw the bits up in the air but, amazingly, they came back together in almost the same order,' says Emerick. 'We all expected it to sound different but it was virtually the same as before! So we switched bits around and turned some upside down.' 'It really worked well,' says Martin, proudly. 'And of course John was delighted with the end result.' Although the effects tape was done on this day it was not superimposed onto Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! until 29 March. Close scrutiny of that overdub (it's the one which appears near the end of the song) reveals that 19 pieces of tape had been edited together by Martin and Emerick." [7]
  The result would be unconceivable in these days, without the limitations that in 1967 forced the brilliant minds of The Beatles and George Martin to such inventions: today a similar effect could be recreated in a few seconds and with infinitely less manual effort, but it would not have the same sound, nor the same charm.
Less evident is the meaning of the animal verses (a reference to Pet Sounds?) on Good Morning Good Morning, drawn again from EMI sound archive, [8] originally conceived to compose a food chain in which every animal is eaten — or at least threatened — by the following one: a quite difficult task to achieve for a sheep against a horse, however.
  The charitable karma of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is revealed in the way in which even fortuitous inserts fit perfectly into the continuity of the work: the final verse of the hen in pitch with the guitar G that opens the Reprise is a wonderful example of serendipity, which is second only to the alarm clock on A Day In The Life. Lennon had brought it in the studio for a joke — to wake Ringo in case a drum track was needed — and had left it on top of the piano. With just as much wit, Mal Evans makes it ring at the end of the twenty-four bars to be eventually filled by the orchestra: how much chance was there that its sound — remained in the final recording for the simple reason that it was impossible to erase it — could be such a perfect start to Paul's section beyond to come, starting with "Woke up, fell out of bed"?
The randomness, already exploited with the loops for Tomorrow Never Knows, will often recur in the Beatles' work: from Shakespeare's King Lear casually broadcast during the final mix for I Am The Walrus to the bottle of wine resounding over Long, Long, Long last chords, up to the very title of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. [9]
3 Recording techniques in the compositional process
3.1 Left: George Martin and the Beatles in the Abbey Road Studio during the recording of Sgt. Pepper's

The recording studio as a musical instrument. Glenn Gould claimed that the technological recording medium had changed forever the way many artists interpret their music. It is above all with the diffusion of magnetic tape recording, towards the end of WWII, that the recording studio becomes a musical instrument, through three types of tape manipulation: what today we would call cut-and-paste; punch-in (the possibility of overdubbing a musical passage, for a virtually infinite number of times, until its execution is considered satisfactory) and, from the '60s on, multitrack recording. [10] In the Beatles' career the studio activity takes on a specific weight that grows exponentially from 1962 to 1967, and it is wrong to assert that only with Sgt. Pepper they discover its potential: rather, for this project, the band can finally devote the necessary time to delve into practices already approached on Rubber Soul and, more extensively, on Revolver.

  Instead of working on one track at a time until its completion, as was customary until 1966, during the sessions for Pepper the Beatles start to change their working method, often leaving the tracks incomplete to work on other material, so as to return to the previous ones cold-minded.
While the Beach Boys had already been able to use an eight-track recorder on Pet Sounds, Abbey Road equipment at that time is still limited to a Studer J37, which has only four. [11 This involves severe constraints in the management of available space, in addition to quality losses every time they must resort to bouncing (transferring the four tracks already recorded on a new tape, in order to free up space); a practice requiring the utmost attention when mixing the tracks to be transferred, given the impossibility of later interventions on the single instruments, now blended together. The story of Mr. Kite collage illustrates a situation in which restrictions and strokes of genius are directly connected: this dichotomy pervades the whole story of Sgt. Pepper involving not only technical inventions but precise consequences on the compositional process.
  The same limit imposed by the use of a simple pair of recorders to bounce the incisions up to the completion of the sound image, often becomes a stylistic feature: the blend of pianos premixed in Penny Lane, for example, could not have similar consistency and spatiality if it had been recorded differently, in digital or even on analog tape with separate tracks.
The small space available on tape also affects the arrangements of the "external" instruments, to which a single track is usually assigned, be it a simple organ, a brass quartet, or a forty-elements orchestra. For A Day In The Life the Beatles and George Martin ​​find themselves in the extreme situation in which four tracks have already been filled by the band, thus requiring a second recorder for the orchestra overdub. If on the one hand this allows to replicate four times the crescendo, dramatically enhancing its impact, on the other it involves an additional difficulty, the synchronisation of the two machines (the Studer which has to record the orchestra and the one that must play the track recorded by the group). They have to be connected to an external device uniforming the electrical tension, and manually launched at the same time. Only for this operation hours and hours of training are necessary. [12]
  The intensive use of D.I. for the recording of the electric bass, so present in the overall sound, pushes to further ration the multitrack in order to save free tracks for McCartney's bass final overdub, with Paul thus gaining time for the composition of his lines; obviously this is not always possible and it is not uncommon for two instruments to cohabit on the same track, as for bass and drums on A Day In The Life. Especially for rhythm guitars, the grid imposed by the four tracks leads to arrange the intertwining between Lennon and Harrison in order to differentiate the parameters of their respective parts from the very beginning: range, texture, execution and timbre (calibrated right from the input: instrument, amplifier, miking). The use of guitar pedals will allow to add effects on the single instrument without integrating them from the mixing console.
  The Leslie, and above all the Automatic Double Tracking, already savoured on Revolver, are generously lavished among the thirteen tracks of the new album. Specifically created at Abbey Road to meet John Lennon's neverending requests to modify his voice — and his laziness in doubling it in the traditional way, by repeating the execution — ADT is present in virtually all John's vocal tracks, combined with various echo intensities, and over time its use becomes so subtle as to be almost unintelligible (Lovely Rita). Tapes are cut, thrown into the air and sewn together, maneuvered, modified, obstructed in their motion to alter their pace.
  Tape manipulation becomes time manipulation, through the massive use of varispeed. The latter, by altering the frequency of the electrical tension from its 50Hz standard (fifty cycles per second) also changes the speed with which the magnetic tape runs; in the analogical system, this involves in turn a variation of frequency that raises or lowers the pitch of a sound recorded on tape.
  The Beatles' production had already been using half speed recording technique, which also splits the frequency in half: the solos on A Hard Day's Night and In My Life, too fast to play for Harrison and Martin, were recorded one octave lower, at the exact half of the original tempo, returning in tune with the song when they were run at the canonical fifty cycles per second.
Strawberry Fields Forever has reached its final form thanks to the brilliant use of this technology: the eternally dissatisfied Lennon, after 26 takes and just as many musical metamorphoses asks candidly to George Martin to edit together take 7 for the first part of the song, and take 20 for the second. When the producer points out that they are recorded at different speeds and pitches (the second being a semitone higher), John — notoriously unable to elaborate any technical-practical data in his dreamer's mind — replies, nonchalantly: "I'm sure you'll fix it, George, won't you?" [13] And the facts prove him right, indeed: the intuition of the Fifth Beatle to slow down take 20 until it reaches almost exactly the key of the first section — masking the gluing with the arrangement — is a work of art in itself. [14]
  On Revolver and especially on Pepper, however, varispeed is used for more aesthetic than practical purposes. Its use is finer and the jumps of octave — adopted, as for In My Life, to facilitate the execution of keyboard solos in Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! and Lovely Rita — are replaced by minor variations, usually a semitone. On When I'm 64, in a very connotative way, this serves to make Paul's voice "younger", in line with the protagonist of the lyrics; but in general its use on songs like Within You Without You, as it had been on Rain, I'm Only Sleeping, Penny Lane — is a powerful tool to intervene on the basic parameters of sound. The essential issue is not to reach a certain speed or key; it is rather the timbre, an essential component of the album, to be transformed by the process. Ultimately, this elasticity of time — lengthened or restricted — reflects the sensorial alteration typical of those who, like the Beatles, turn to LSD for the exploration of their perception: varispeed, as well as echo, double tracking of the voice, flanging and other sound manipulations, make Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band the most faithful musical translation of the psychedelic experience.
  The recording studio, during the making of Sgt. Pepper, becomes a real musical instrument, with all its idiomatic value: to use a banal comparison, as well as composing on the guitar can make us use some keys rather than others, or melodic articulations typical of that specific instrument (e.g. bending, slurs etc.), the use — in the very initial phase of the composition — of the aforementioned studio techniques directs some fundamental choices towards certain directions rather than others. The Beatles at Abbey Road, like four kids in a toy shop, will avidly exploit its full potential.
3.2 The work of the technicians and the new sound standards set at Abbey Road. Starting from the first sound reproduction experiments performed by Graham Bell and Thomas Watson around 1876, the activity of recording studios has evolved in parallel with technology, in constant correlation with the musical styles produced within them. Just as in the history of figurative arts, at a certain point, the Aristotelian mimesis which requires to replicate the natural datum — in music, the live performance — gives way to the claims of autonomy by the medium: to put it with George Martin, "you should not expect that people are necessarily doing what they seem to be doing on record". This is all the more peculiar on Pepper, a work that pretends to be a live performance through a music which can not be performed live: from the illusion of reality to the reality of illusion. [15]
The progress of the recording technology brings with it an evolution of its professional figures, personalities whose role in the contemporary music system has remained wrapped in a darkness similar to that of the sculptors whose hands, under Bernini's shadow, materialized the latter's projects in Baroque Rome. Besides the producers, sound engineers' importance progressively increases, with noticeable changes in their relationship with musicians and authors, who must be enabled to understand the potential of the technological means that will give life to their work, just as the technicians must be involved in aesthetic issues. [16]
As often happens, these "collisions", before causing frictions and new settlements, determine a change of perspective both in the professional conditions of the "artisans" — i.e., technicians and sound engineers — and the awareness of the technical tools themselves, no more merely functional but expressive too: [17]
"In the elaborate independent studios that began to appear in the late 1960s, there is often an ideology about of a collective artistic autonomy, in which musicians, producers and mixers interweave and switch roles. Nevertheless, this can then bring about not democratization but new hierarchies; the auteur remains, merely changing his position and identity. Similarly, descriptions of Phil Spector's production methods suggest a collective approach to song-writing and a collaborative approach to decision-taking in the studio, but indicate that subsequently Spector's iron will — represented by the 'formula' he has in mind — takes over and moulds everything into his vision [...] The collaborative methods of the Beatles, in the studio and to some extent in composition beforehand, did not prevent conflict between the apparent creative 'leaders' (Lennon and McCartney) and their 'subordinates', which eventually contributed to the break-up of the group." [18]
Although the conflict of which Middleton speaks will begin to spread in the course of a few months within the Beatles and in their relationships with their "subordinates", there is still no trace of it during the making of Sgt. Pepper. [19] Rather, conflicts and hostility arise within the EMI staff, among the old "classic" white coats and new "pop" technicians, for whom only the Beatles-shield with its extensive aura of untouchability will avoid layoffs every time the rules of the studies will be broken for the common cause of the experimentation. And this, in 1966-67, occurs almost every day.
  The contribution of sound technicians in popular music is particularly significant in virtue of the continuous technological progress and its influence on '60s rock music, whose spokespersons are musicians who have learned to play electric instruments — technological devices themselves — not from sheet music but from radios and records; the listening education they recieve from the latters will guide them when they set foot in the studio.
  We have already mentioned Ken Townsend, chief EMI engineer inventor of ADT, of the frequency variator — used to match the different speeds of the two Strawberry Fields Forever takes to form the final version — and others small and big technical devilries: the flanger itself seems to be one of his ideas, and is thus baptized by Lennon after George Martin — in yet another mockery of John's technical incompetence — showed him its operating principle as a "double-bifurcated flange".
A new member had been recruited for the Beatles-team in the spring of 1966, just before the beginning of Revolver: replacing Norman Smith — Normal Smith for Lennon, because of his aplomb, who was to become producer for Pink Floyd's debut album in 1967 — the twenty year old Geoff Emerick becomes first sound engineer for the Beatles, debuting in this role with the track which inaugurates the experimental period of the band, Tomorrow Never Knows. [20]
Although the Fab Four are absolutely impenetrable to strangers in their natural habitat, and it may takes months before they address the word to newcomers, their relationship with Emerick — a technician who is even younger than them — grows in intensity and confidence during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper; as well as that with Richard Lush, second sound engineer, [21] the one who manually presses rec button, an operation which is more delicate than it may seem, at the time of analogic drop in. The Beatles and George Martin owe a lot to their work, if Sgt. Pepper sounds as it is:
"Since the days of Revolver, we had gotten used to being asked to do the impossible, and we knew that the word 'no' didn't exist in the Beatles' vocabulary." [22]
The most significant contribution of Emerick in the making of Sgt. Pepper is arguably his personal close-up miking technique: for the brass instruments overdubbed by Sounds Incorporated on Good Morning Good Morning, the Neumann microphones used almost exclusively in that period literally enter into the bells. This is apparently in contrast to what Moorefield — speaking of the removal of microphones from instruments in order to simulate the spatial rendering of sound — defined "metaphor of presence". [23]
  In particular, Emerick will be universally appreciated for the drum sound created at Abbey Road in collaboration with Ringo Starr: the close miking, combined with an empirical use of natural reverberation of the space — in the Reprise the abundant echo of Studio 1 is absolutely free of plug-ins or other technical devices — and the modifications made to Ringo's Ludwig (replacement of the skins, tea towels used as dampers, etc.) form a recipe that every studio in the years to come will try in vain to replicate, with far greater economic spending.
  Another ingredient of Emerick's sound, his true style signature, is the powerful compression employed not only for drums, but also for other instruments and the voices themselves (listen to Paul's on A Day In The Life, completely deprived of trebles to make it more "sleepy"). Through these free but careful modifications Emerick and Lush, under George Martin's attentive eyes and ears, intervene retouching the very physical form of sound, emphasizing one instrument rather than another, changing the dynamics and the interpretations that our ear gives to the musical fact, collecting all the impulses coming from voices and instruments, mixing and positioning them in the sound image. In short, fully taking part in the achievement of the final result, which on Sgt. Pepper — regardless of purely musical or authorial value — is simply excellent.
4 Composition and production: editing, mixing, tracklist
4.1 Right: George Martin and the Beatles in the Abbey Road Studio during the recording of Sgt. Pepper's

Semantics of recording production. At the end of the Anthology version of Let It Be, Lennon comments on the potentiality of the song suggesting to work on it ("Ok, let's track it!") and immediately adding with sarcasm: "Oh! You bounder! You cheat!". It's a clear allusion to how much the working method adopted in studio since 1966 is rooted in their own forma mentis even when they obligate themselves to record "as nature intended", as in that case.

When making a record, musicians, producers and sound technicians are always faced with a choice: to follow the path of musical realism — trying to reproduce the live performance as faithfully as possible — or to create virtual sound worlds, in various measure freed from "real" performance.

The Beatles' discography touches both extremes: from the total frankness of Please Please Me, honest document of a live act — albeit without public, in the enclosure of a studio — recorded in just fifteen hours, to the long construction of Pepperland, the greatest possible departure from musical realism.

  When the Beatles will seek the original rock'n'roll purity again, on Get Back/Let It Be, they will realize that such an approach, if not anachronistic, is at least forced; and the absolute chaos of those sessions certainly does not help to recover the verve of the beginnings. Left to mature for about a year, also those tapes are eventually subjected to a therapy of overdubs by Phil Spector who is given, according to Lennon's diplomatic words, "the shittiest load of badly recorded shit — and with a lousy feeling to it — ever. And he made something out of it".
  Whether one chooses one or the other aesthetic, the recorded image, like the photographed one, is always crafted. It is a process neither neutral nor transparent, in which the medium is absolutely significant:
"Crafting occurs in the following dimensions, each with photographic parallels, and all involving aesthetic assumptions: (i) choice of microphones and their placement [lens and depth of field]; (ii) choice of tape or magnetic disc [photographic film]; (iii) choice of speakers and playback equipments [hardness or softness (contrast responsiveness) of photographic paper]." 24]
  The action and the interpretation by producers and sound engineers is therefore inevitable. As well as for the comsumers, who listen to music in absence, being able to intervene themselves on sound parameters (volume, equalization, repetition, etc.).
  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, like the vast majority of popular music records, is a product made through the superimposition of layers, veiling of sounds; as in film editing, events created in different times and spaces are artificially reconstructed, obtaining a semblance of continuity and coherence.
4.2 Editing and mixing; mono vs stereo. The new recording techniques, while enhancing the artists' expressive palette, require an ever-increasing recourse to editing and mixing, as well as a careful planning of the available tracks in view of possible overdubs, reductions, bouncing, etc .: on Sgt. Pepper this task is carried out to perfection by George Martin and Geoff Emerick, who have often stressed that it was never necessary to go back after a premix.
As well as for written, graphic and cinematographic production, audio editing too is aimed at the selection, correction, condensation, and organization of the material to be published. On Sgt. Pepper we can find what Hamilton defines — with particular reference to Glenn Gould — creative editing, distinguished from a purely corrective action (the simple cutting of errors or bad executions). [25]
Through this creative activity the album, in its various moments, embodies all possible types of recording: the performance-recording (on the title-track and the Reprise, with their allusion to the audience), the composition-recording ( when editing the best takes and the best interpretations of a certain passage, as it often occurs on Lennon's songs), and the artifact-recording with the creation of music impossible to reproduce in live performances (e.g., the collage of calliope on Mr. Kite). [26]
  The editing of Strawberry Fields Forever, putting together two performances different in speed and key, remains the handicraft masterpiece of those sessions — the passage between the two sections is still audible exactly at 1'00" — but the whole album is stuffed of imperceptible space-time passages manually realised by cutting and gluing strips of magnetic tape, in order to complete a puzzle in which even the most unique pieces fit perfectly into the overall design.
  If the editing phase selects the material for the mixing, the latter can be compared to a recipe, with different doses and treatments reserved for the various ingredients. In an era far from nowadays automation, which allows with the proverbial "touch of a finger" to implement the most elaborate operations, on Sgt. Pepper the mixing too is manually accomplished.
  The mix creates the blend forming the finished product: it is not just a matter of giving more or less weight to the various instruments in terms of volume, but also making final adjustments to the timbre, equalizing it and defining its spatiality, especially in stereo.
  It is precisely on the differences between mono and stereo versions — brought back to light by the new Deluxe edition, remastered by Giles Martin, George's son — that the most burning disputes are played, still without a winner after fifty years.
  Also in this respect, Sgt. Pepper is chronologically placed in a moment of transition, being the last Beatles' album mixed first in mono (the White Album will be their first 33 rpm to have the main treatment in stereo).
  The reason is quite simple: the vast majority of the audio equipment market in 1967 is composed of mono devices; this is the standard listening mode, the main target, and it is absolutely normal for coeval artists to interpret their production on the basis of this type of reception.
  In a large part, the mix is ​​carried out on the single tracks as they are completed and a first master is made on April 6, following the band's instructions to omit the separation grooves between the songs, in order to obtain a greater continuity.
In that same session the crossfading between the title track and With A Little Help From My Friends, and between Reprise and A Day In The Life is applied. [27]
  As proof of the importance given to this mode, the Beatles are present only during the mono mix, leaving to Martin and Emerick the task of carrying forward the operations in stereo, probably unaware of the great differences between the two versions. It is mainly by virtue of this, that many people consider the record in mono as a sort of Holy Grail, the one and only philological edition of the album.
  In my opinion, following what has been said about the importance of the work division in the record production and about the absolutely active role of George Martin, Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush in the making of Pepper, the stereo mix is ​​just as legitimate than the mono and probably much more meditated (although carried out in a shorter time).
  In fact, it is realised at a later time after having well absorbed the first version and having certainly understood its advantages and disadvantages, as well as some flaws to correct (such as the crossfade between the hen in Good Morning Good Morning and Harrison's guitar in the attack of the Reprise, and a better management of some "crowd noises").
  The sound of the mono mix is necessarily more compact, missing the spatiality of stereo, and makes Pepper a little more rock, especially with regard to the rhythm section; on the other hand the stereo version better exalts the psychedelic atmosphere that characterizes the work, with a more enveloping and surreal sound image.
  Going into the inner details of the songs, the most important differences can be found on She's Leaving Home and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. The former has different tempos and keys in the two versions (F major in mono, E major in stereo); it is usually believed that it was recorded at a slower speed — with the usual resort to varispeed — and then accelerated thereafter.
  In this case, the mono version would be more respectful of the Beatles's will, giving a very different atmosphere to the song, compared to the more widespread stereo version. In mono, Lucy In The Sky has an even more psychedelic sound, due to the greater use of ADT and flanger in vocals.
  The fifty years since its release make us forget that we are now accustomed to considering stereophony as the only possible mode, more or less like color film. Without having to necessarily fall into the customs of half a century ago, the fairest path — which is also the most pleasant — is to listen to the album in both ways.
4.3 The tracklist and the composition of Pepperland mosaic. The assembly of the work still lacks a final step, which in its simplicity shows the decisive value of post production: the tracklist. In that temporary master made on 6 April, the A side unfolds quite differently from the final draft, concluding as follows: Being For The Benefit Of Mr.Kite!, Fixing A Hole, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Getting Better, She's Leaving Home. The task of establishing the list is up to George Martin, but the Beatles still have the possibility of veto: the first sequence is rejected.
Many of the songs actually find their place in the tracklist with extreme naturalness: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band must obviously be the opening act, and With A Little Help From My Friends, to which it is linked musically and semantically — for the reference to Billy Shears — firmly occupies the second place; Good Morning Good Morning is fortuitously but perfectly connected to the Reprise, which in any other album would be the natural conclusion, but the 'gran finale' of A Day In The Life with its apocalyptic tail does not allow any continuation. [28]
  Of course, George Martin follows a commercial principle, which demands the best songs at the beginning of each side, with a small stasis in the respective second parts, then closed by two sensational endings. On the other hand, on Sgt. Pepper more than in any other album, he aims to get continuity, which is achieved through a series of contrapositions. Thus Within You Without You, the most serious song, is lightened both by the final laughs and by the following disengaged vaudeville of When I'm 64, while Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds finds its natural habitat after the first two tracks.
  The songs so organized assume a quotient of unity which would be difficult to imagine through different sequences: the melodic, rhythmic, harmonic textures intertwine like the narrative ones. The keys follow each other elegantly establishing ties that go from the three jumps of fourth connecting Lucy's final G Major with Getting Better C and Fixing A Hole F, to the C # which supports the first two tracks of Side B; lastly, the G major reached through the modulation of the Reprise flows seamlessly into the opening chords on A Day In The Life.
  In the end, what takes shape is a kind of modern suite, to be heard rather than danced: a rock symphony in thirteen movements. If the Beatles are the actors of this historical pièce, George Martin is certainly the most worthy director.
   
Previous
  Notes
1. This advantageous situation was in turn used as a weapon by the record company to lower the percentage on sales due to the artists. Return to text
2. Artist and Repertoire. Return to text
3. Emerick 2006, 157. Return to text
4. On track 12, cd 2, of Sgt. Pepper's Deluxe edition we can distinctly hear the explosions of some balloons fluttering in Studio 1 during the happening of February 10, 1967. Return to text
5. Northcutt 2006, 144. Return to text
6. Mellers 1967. Return to text
7. Lewisohn 1988, 99. Return to text
8. EMI tape library Vol. 35: Animals and bees and Vol. 57: Fox Hunt — cfr. Lewisohn 1988, 105. Return to text
9. Harrison wanted to be inspired by the first words he would read after opening a book at random: fate opted for "gently weeps". Return to text
10. Pras and Gustavino 2013, 613. Return to text
11. The Beatles will be able to record on eight tracks — far from Abbey Road, at first — only since 1968. Return to text
12. Emerick 2006, 154. Return to text
13. During the recordings, enchanted by the sound obtained from the bass in D.I., John asks George Martin to record his voice with that system as well. "There's no problem, John — it's the producer's answer — You just have to undergo an operation to get a jack inserted directly into your vocal cords." Even after such a reply, John is not entirely convinced of the impossibility of the thing ... Return to text
14. Martin 1995, 50-51. Return to text
15. Moorefield 2005, xiii. Return to text
16. The professional development of sound engineers and recording studio operators is traced in Kealy 1979 from a point of view close to that of the social history of art; on the impact of technology in the registration process see Pras-Gustavino 2013. Return to text
17. Kealy 1979, 3-4. Return to text
18. Middleton 1990, 91. Return to text
19. Quite different situation just one year later, when the irremediable tensions inside the band will also invest their technicians: Geoff Emerick will abandon the group during the recordings for the White Album, on July, 1968, exhausted by the intolerable atmosphere at Abbey Road. Return to text
20. Emerick 2006, 387. Return to text
21. Lush replaces Phil McDonald right after A Day In The Life. Return to text
22. Emerick 2006, 139. Return to text
23. Moorefield 2005, xiv. Return to text
24. Hamilton 2003, 351. Return to text
25. Hamilton 2003, 354. Return to text
26. Pras-Gustavino 2013, 615. Return to text
27. Lewisohn 1988, 251-252. Return to text
28. Martin 1995, 229. Return to text
   
Previous
  References
 
  • Brusco, Francesco (2017), Estetica di Sgt. Pepper. Genesi, linguaggi e ricezione del capolavoro dei Beatles. [The aesthetics of Sgt. Pepper. Genesis, languages and reception of the Beatles' masterpiece] Rome: Arcana Edizioni.
  • Emerick, Geoff, and Howard Massey (2006), Here, there and everywhere. My life recording the music of the Beatles. New York: Gotham Books.
  • Hamilton, Andy (2003), "The art of recording and the aesthetics of perfection." In: British Journal of Aesthetics, 43, 4, 345-362.
  • Kealy, Edward R. (1979), "From craft to art. The case of sound mixers and popular music. Ïn: Work and Occupations, 6, 1, 3-29 (Center for the Study of Social Intervention, Yeshiva University).
  • Lewisohn, Mark (1988), The Beatles recording sessions. New York: Harmony Books.
  • Marshall, Ian (2006), "I'm he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. Bakthin and the Beatles." In: Kenneth Womack and Todd F. Davis (Eds.), Reading the Beatles. Cultural studies, literary criticism and the Fab Four. New York: State University of New York Press, 9-35.
  • Martin, George (1995), Summer of Love. The making of Sgt. Pepper. London: Pan Books (Italian translation by Paolo Somigli, L'Estate di Sgt. Pepper. Rome: La Lepre Edizioni, 2008.)
  • Mellers, Wilfrid (1967), "Lonely Beat." In: New Statesman, June 2, 1967, 70-71.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990), Studying popular music. Philadelphia: Open University Press (Italian translation, Studiare la popular music. Milan: Feltrinelli, 2001).
  • Moorefield, Virgil (2005), The producer as composer. Shaping the sounds of popular music. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • Mulder, Juul (2001), "Semantic shifts in Beatles' chord progressions. On the perception of shifts in song contexts induced by chords." In: AAVV, Beatlestudies 3. Proceedings of the Beatles 2000 conference. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä (Department of Music, Research Reports 23), 113-128.
  • Northcutt, William M. (2006), "The spectacle of alienation. Death, loss and the crowd on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." in: Kenneth Womack and Todd F. Davis (Eds.), Reading the Beatles. Cultural studies, literary criticism and the Fab Four. New York: State University of New York Press, 129-146.
  • Pras, Amandine, and Catherine Gustavino (2013), "The impact of technological advances on recording studio practices." In: Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 64, 3, 612-626.
   
Previous
  2018 © Soundscapes