Being for the benefit of Sgt. Pepper: The Beatles at Abbey Road
Image credit: rex features, alamy, getty images
Abbey Road Studios didn’t just record The Beatles’ Summer of Love album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – it helped create it using imagination and the latest technology.
Beyond the undeniable chemistry of the Beatles and their prodigious songwriting output, there is a good reason why the music of The Fab Four endures. Record producers – both aspiring and those well-established – still look to the sound of Beatles records for inspiration and basic schooling in production techniques. Sonically speaking, the Beatles’ recordings remain exquisite examples of how to record pop and rock music par excellence.
One key magic ingredient at the heart of any Beatles recording is Abbey Road Studios itself: the unique studio spaces, equipment, the engineers and the technicians permanently installed at EMI Studios – as the facility was officially called – in the 1960s.
As a location for a world-beating recording complex, the posh, leafy north London suburb of St John’s Wood might not immediately present itself as an obvious choice. However, the unassuming residential building at No.3 Abbey Road, a 16-room private house built in 1830 and spread over three floors with a 250ft (75m) garden space behind the property, caught the eye of The Gramophone Company (as EMI was then known) as the perfect space on which to build its flagship dedicated recording facility.
The company purchased the property in 1929 for £16,500. In developing the space, EMI ended up buying the house and gardens of the adjacent No.5 Abbey Road too, and the huge back garden of No.3 would eventually accommodate the enormous Studio One space, used then as now for recording full orchestral performances.
Industrial architects Wallis, Gilbert and Partners were called in to design the studios, the company having already collaborated with The Gramophone Company to build its huge 60-acre (24ha) factory site at Hayes, Middlesex, where all the manufacturing and shipping for the end product of the recording process took place, as well as technical work for studio equipment and audio innovations. Alan Blumlein invented stereo sound while working at Hayes.
Over the next two years, approximately £100,000 was spent on developing the residential property into a state-of-the-art recording facility, housing not just the three main recording studio spaces (Studio One, Studio Two and Studio Three), but the full complement of ancilary spaces: listening rooms, editing suites, mastering rooms, cutting lathes and workshops, as well as the necessary supporting staff spaces, plus all the electrical wiring necessary to tie the whole enterprise together.
Shortly before the complex opened on 12 November 1931, The Gramophone Company merged with Columbia to form Electric and Musical Industries Limited – aka EMI – giving the building its name: EMI Studios, London. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the building was officially renamed Abbey Road Studios.
By the time The Beatles began recording ‘Sgt. Pepper’, in November 1966, the band were operating in a mature professional recording environment, performing in some of the best-sounding rooms ever designed, surrounded by equipment of the highest quality and with almost any sound imaginable available on demand.
Anything that The Beatles could dream up, the studio staff were on hand to make real. When John Lennon said: “I want to smell the sawdust, George” to his producer, referring to the sound effects bed for the middle-eight of ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’, it was down to Sir George Martin to come up with the idea of locating pipe organ tape recordings, cutting them into one-inch strips, throwing the whole lot in the air and then gluing them all back together at random.
Nothing was off limits to the band: the creative atmosphere at Abbey Road really gave them their head. As Beatles press officer Tony Barrow later wrote in his memoirs, “Abbey Road became a hive of intense industry with open-ended day and night sessions. [The band were involved in] 12-hour recording sessions from four in the afternoon until four the following morning.”
These gruelling all-nighters were a Beatles innovation, along with wearing headphones while tracking: both a pushing of the stuffy EMI Studios envelope, where engineers wore white coats, technicians wore brown coats and producers wore a shirt and tie at all times. Before The Beatles’ irreverence and stellar fame swept such convention before them, even the fridge was locked at night so there was no milk for the endless cups of tea the band imbibed.
Studio Two is colloquially known as ‘The Beatles’ room’, as it is here where the vast majority of Beatles music was laid down. A big room, it is approximately 18 metres long, 11.5m wide and 8.5m high. The design of the room was originally intended to capture the big bands of the time. With little to no signal processing available from the studio equipment itself, the quality of sound of the room in which the musicians played was absolutely paramount. Hence, a lot of work went into making Studio Two (and One and Three) sound excellent, naturally.
The famous thick, solid-wood floors of Studio Two are apparent in every photograph of The Beatles at work, the parquet flooring helping to create a lively yet warm sound. The white painted brick walls were deliberately laid irregularly to help with the dispersion of sound waves and discourage excessive reflections.
The space above the musicians’ heads had a false ceiling comprising cloth panels in place below the actual ceiling, helping diffuse the sound, and the high walls were hung with Cabot’s Quilt – dried eelgrass (similar to seaweed) sewn into long linen bags, dozens of which were hung around the studio, providing floor-to-ceiling acoustic damping.
Three large Indian rugs were also placed at the far end of the room, to create an acoustically dead space in contrast to the wooden parquet floor. This end of the room was the one preferred by The Beatles. Appropriately enough, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was almost the last hurrah for these psychedelic rugs: having been in situ since 1931, they were replaced by grey carpet in 1968.
One further acoustic innovation in Studio Two was the installation in 1961 of huge swing-out screens, still in place today, which effectively reduce the size of the room and help to control its natural 1.2-second reverberation. The screens are covered with perforated tiles for the absorption and diffusion of sound waves.
Even today, the sound of Studio Two remains unique. The natural tone of this big room, with its mix of reflective spaces and acoustic damping materials, is warm and pleasing to the ear, with a natural reverberation and note decay. The room’s sonic fingerprint is left on any music recorded there and it happened to suit The Beatles’ work very well.
In a room of this size, the band could really let rip. The Beatles recorded LOUD (“They played at quite an excessive level,” studio engineer Geoff Emerick later drily remarked), and with no inhibitions about noise levels the musicians were free to express themselves.
By the time of ‘Sgt. Pepper’, the four-channel REDD.51 mixing desk had been installed and oriented in Studio Two’s elevated control room so that the production staff could look directly out of the window and down into Studio Two. The famous REDD valve-driven consoles (first the .37, followed by the .51) were an in-house EMI design, created by a special division of engineers based at Hayes called the Record Engineering Development Department.
For ‘Sgt. Pepper’, the Beatles, Martin and Emerick were willing partners in crime in ripping up the rule book throughout the 700 hours devoted to making the record. Keen to subvert the accepted methods of recording (the EMI staff rules were so strict that only a technician could move a microphone), Emerick was more than happy to experiment, such as close-miking instruments – a technique that reduces pickup of ambient noises but increases bass response. It was against the rules at the time, but standard practice ever since.
Part of The Beatles’ perpetual thirst for new sounds was driven by their admiration for, and competition with, certain records from the USA. Paul McCartney, for example, had noticed that Motown’s bass sound was seriously phat and his wasn’t, so for ‘Sgt. Pepper’, his bass sound got a reboot.
McCartney had already acquired a Rickenbacker 4001S bass guitar around the time of the previous album, ‘Revolver’. This bass had a much more pronounced low-end than his trademark Beatlemania-era Hofner violin bass. Now, McCartney’s change of instrument was augmented for ‘Sgt. Pepper’ by Emerick swapping the traditional EMI Studios bass mic workhorse, the dynamic AKG D20 (also used for bass drum duties), for the superior clarity and frequency response of the AKG C12 condenser valve microphone.
Emerick also experimented with new, more distant, miking techniques on McCartney’s Vox amp, as well as different polarities on the mics, such as figure-of-eight, and using two microphones at varying distances. McCartney’s bass was also recorded using a direct injection (DI) box, specially built by EMI Studios’ lead technician Ken Townsend, for the first time on ‘Sgt. Pepper’. The DI box allowed the bass to be plugged directly into the console, obviating the need to mike up an amp in the room. After this, many Beatles instrument overdubs were tracked using this method and it is common studio practice today.
This quest for new sounds allied with a willingness to experiment characterised the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ sessions. The Studios’ collection of specialist instruments, such as the tack piano, where the hammers have been hardened to give it an especially bright sound, was a source of delight and inspiration to the Beatles. Numerous studio pianos and other esoteric keyboards were used across ‘Sgt. Pepper’, most notably for the giant 45-second E-major chord at the end of ‘Day In The Life’, which features three pianos played by five people simultaneously.
Despite its reputation as the foremost recording facility in the world, at the time EMI Studios lagged behind in some regards. While it was still using only four-track tape machines, other studios already had eight-track tape decks.
However, while the folklore about ‘Sgt. Pepper’ being recorded on a four-track tape machine is indeed true, the four-track machine in question – a Studer J37, of which there were several at EMI Studios – really was the ‘Rolls-Royce’ machine of its day. It still is, in fact, and one is still in use at the Studios.
Designed by Willi Studer, who had great earlier success with his Revox line of machines, the J37 was the two-inch tape multitrack version of his C37 machine. Employing former Swiss watchmakers in his Zurich factory certainly helped bring a unique precision in design, machining and manufacturing to Studer’s brand, resulting in beautiful, reliable, legendary products.
While four-track recording has its obvious limitations when layering complex arrangements and demands absolute attention to detail, there is a creative upside to this. There’s no chance to ‘fix it in the mix’ later. When you’re ‘bouncing’ (consolidating) three tracks of drums, bass and vocals down to one track, in order to free those three tracks up for further recording, you’ve got to make the best sonic decisions at every stage. There is no ‘Undo’ function with tape.
As Emerick described it: “We were after perfection; it wasn’t a question of being 99 per cent happy with something; we all had to be 100 per cent happy with it. That’s why everything on the album is so pristine and precise.”
To assist in making these key submix and final mix decisions, EMI Studios had an arsenal of exclusive outboard equipment to creatively shape the sound. The RS124 was the primary compressor of choice for Beatles bass and guitars and the repeated submixing and valve compression ‘squash’ resulted in a glorious sheen. The sound of the RS124, with its glacial attack and release times, has been described by Abbey Road’s director of engineering, Peter Cobbin, as being like “pure cream being drizzled slowly into and over a mix”.
Also important in shaping The Beatles’ sound was the RS56 Universal Tone Control equaliser, aka the ‘Curve Bender’ EQ. This had been designed for disc-cutting use, but the engineers were granted special permission by EMI to use the RS56 UTC during tracking and mixing of Beatles sessions only.
At mixdown and mastering stages, another little box of EMI Studios magic was frequently brought out: the RS127 ‘presence box’. This portable green (or sometimes grey) box could be brought to the console when a little high-end fairy dust was required, offering a boost at a specific treble frequency – e.g. 8kHz – not available on the REDD.51 console itself, which only had fixed bass and treble frequencies. This top-end boost could help open up the sound and bring the timbre of voices and instruments forward more in the final mix.
Part of the tension that existed between the buttoned-down old world at EMI Studios and the new freedoms inferred by the psychedelic ’60s actually served to benefit the recording of an album such as ‘Sgt. Pepper’. For all the craziness and drug-induced expanding conciousness the band brought to work, there was real benefit to them in the formal processes in place at the studios.
For example, the tedious business of setting up and logging the sessions required the balance engineers to fill out a setup sheet for the studio arrangement for every song, documenting all microphone types and the polar patterns used (e.g. Neumann 67; cardioid), the location of musicians, instrument types, any outboard equipment and the settings used.
As George Martin said: “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.” All the band had to do was turn up and play. Everything else was taken care of for them.
Similarly, the technical skills and equipment of the studios played a major part in several key moments in the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ sessions. Emerick, for example, achieved the ‘Lovely Rita’ piano solo sound by placing sticky tape on the guide rollers of the tape machine sending a signal to the Studio Two echo chamber, causing a wobbling sound which was mixed in with the original, untreated sound.
Martin justified the unconventional practices thus: “We were only able to do this kind of stuff because the group was so uniquely successful that nobody among the EMI hierarchy dared to challenge what we were doing.”
‘Sgt. Pepper’ effectively marks the high-water mark for The Beatles’ sense of togetherness as a band. However, there was no time to rest on their laurels: the album was released on 1 June 1967; on 25 June the BBC’s famous ‘Our World’ satellite broadcast came from Studio Two, with The Beatles performing a new song that wasn’t even on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ – ‘All You Need Is Love’ – and by 27 August, with The Beatles away in Wales pursuing their flirtation with eastern mysticism in the human form of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the band’s manager Brian ‘Eppy’ Epstein was found dead. The Summer of Love was effectively over.
The sound of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is unquestionably a product of its environment and arguably the last great album of its kind created in the ‘old-school’ ways. EMI’s first eight-track tape machines arrived in May 1968, eventually replacing the Studers, and later that year the TG12345 mixing console was delivered. This was EMI’s first all-transistor desk, replacing the valve-driven REDD desks, and marks a watershed moment for the studios.
The 1960s gave way to the 1970s and the march of technology – and nothing would ever be the same again.
Why Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane didn’t make the final cut
The Sgt. Pepper album lost two of what would have been its stand-out tracks, when both Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were snatched away by EMI to be an interim single in February 1967, the record label worried that no new Beatles music had entered the marketplace for over six months.
So it was that the first two songs recorded for Sgt. Pepper never made it to the album, early casualties in the commercial chart wars. It was all the more galling for the band - who had resisted the idea of releasing the single for as long as they could - when the double A-side failed to reach number one, held off the top spot by Englebert Humperdinck’s version of Release Me.
The final mix of Strawberry Fields Forever was famously saved by Geoff Emerick, rising to the challenge of meeting a peculiar demand from John Lennon.
Lennon liked two very different takes of the song, which had been recorded at different speeds and in different keys. Although George Martin initially rejected Lennon’s demand to glue the two takes together as ‘impossible’, Emerick realised that by speeding up the first take on one tape machine and slowing down the second take on a second machine, cutting the tape with brass scissors (not a razor) with a shallow-angle cut to create a longer cross-fade and then splicing the two takes together, he could achieve the desired result.
Indeed, unless you know exactly where the cut occurs, the song shifting from one take to another, it is seamless. ‘Brilliant. Just brilliant’, as Lennon himself was moved to say.