|"A Day in the Life" at Abbey Road with Geoff Emrick and the Beatles
The under-appreciated recording engineer was really a magician!
It was 50 years ago this month when the Beatles released their last album. In the studio with the Fab Four was
record producer George Martin, and recording engineer Geoff Emrick. Emrick, who died last year at age 72,
was a sound engineer who recorded and helped shape the Beatle;s ever-evolving music on pivotal albums like
"Revolver" and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.", and their last studio album 'Abbey Road in 1969.
Geoff Emrick was just out of Crouch End Secondary Modern School in North London in 1962 when he was hired
for an entry-level job as assistant engineer at EMI's Abbey Road studios. He was in his second day on the job
at Abbey Road studios when producer George Martin brought in four young men he recently signed. They were
Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who were in for an early recording session.
What struck Emrick most about this first meeting with the Beatles was their skinny knit ties. He bought one himself,
and wasn't alone since within a short time everyone at EMI was wearing skinny knit ties.
Emrick assisted on some of the Beatles' first records while also working on other projects for the studio,
including classical recordings. Then, in 1966 he was chosen to replace Norman Smith (who became a producer)
as the group's chief engineer.
His first record in that capacity was "Revolver," the 1966 album that included "Eleanor Rigby," "Yellow Submarine"
and the otherworldly "Tomorrow Never Knows." The next year came "Sgt. Pepper's," one of the most innovative and
influential albums of the era.
It was Emrick's job as engineer to figure out how to create and capture the sounds that the band was after. With
the Beatles reaching for new levels of musical complexity, that wasn't easy. "If there was going to be a piano used
on a track, or a guitar, it was always John or Paul or George saying, "Well, we don't want it to sound like a piano or a
guitar," Emrick recalled. " I had no gimmick boxes to play with, like there are today. All we had was tape machines,
and four tracks."
Studio Magic Tricks
In his sessions with the Beatles, he was an experimenter - repositioning microphones from their standard
alignment, for example, to get a fuller drum or bass sound. In one session, John Lennon asked Emrick to make his
voice "sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop on "Tomorrow Never Knows." His solution to this
request: He pumped Lennon's voice through a revolving speaker normally used for and organ.
In the studio, Emrick did not necessarily want everything to be perfect. "Often when we were recording some of
those Beatles rhythm tracks, there might be an error incorporated, and you would say, 'That error sounds rather good,'
and we would actually elaborate on that." "When everything is perfectly in time, the ear or mind tends to ignore it, much like a clock ticking in your bedroom - after
a while you don't hear it.
Emrick's engineering tended to have a D.I.Y. quality; sounds might be found anywhere. In "A Day in the Life," the seminal final track on Sgt. Pepper's," listeners can
hear an alarm clock. That came from a windup clock on the piano, "Lennon had brought it in as a gag one day, saying that it would come in handy for waking up
Ringo when he was needed for an overdub," he recalls. "The night we put the orchestra on it," he recalled, "the whole world went from black to white to color."
A Lasting Innovator
It would not be long before all of the seat-of-the-pants flourishes Geoff Emrick helped the Beatles create for those late-1960's records would be easily
accomplished with synthesizers and such. He said the fact that the albums were not made that way has helped them endure, especially "Sgt. Pepper's."
Given the sophistication of "Sgt. Pepper's," it's easy to overlook the fact that Geoff Emrick had barely turned 20 when he was tasked with helping to get the
Beatles' vision on tape. It was, he recalled, a daunting challenge.
"John came into the control room on that first day and said,'We're never gonna tour again and we're gonna make an album that's gonna have sounds on it and
things on it that no one has ever heard before.' Emrick remembered. "And everyone looked at me, and I know what I've got. I've got nothing!"
Emrick also later engineered or produced solo albums by Paul McCartney and albums by Elvis Costello, Art Garfunkel, the group America and many more. He
also won a Grammy Award for engineering "Sgt. Pepper's", "Abbey Road," and McCartney's 1973 album "Band on the Run."
Hear how sound engineer Geoff Emrick cooked up some magic with this breakthrough Beatles' song from the album "Revolver." :
"Tomorrow Never Knows"