Legendary producer/engineer Geoff Emerick was just 15 years old when he landed a job at Abbey Road Studios, and shortly thereafter worked on some of the historical, first EMI sessions recording the Beatles. At age 19, Geoff became the “first engineer” on Revolver, and subsequently engineered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (White Album), and Abbey Road. He’s also engineered three of Paul McCartney’s classic solo albums, and engineered or produced artists like Elvis Costello, Badfinger, Art Garfunkel, America, Supertramp, Cheap Trick, and many, many more during his incredible, decades-long career. Emerick has received four Grammy Awards, and is the co-author of the incredible book, Here, There and Everywhere – My Life Recording The Beatles. We were thrilled to honor Geoff with TAXI’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 at the TAXI Road Rally.
We were deeply saddened by his untimely passing on October 2, 2018, so we’re publishing some excerpts from his keynote interview. Geoff’s work with the Beatles was the reason that an uncountable number of people like myself chose to work in recording studios and the music industry. Thank you Geoff! -Michael Laskow
You were 15 when you got your first gig at EMI, right?
When I started at EMI I was 15. I mean, I sort of lied about my age. I told them I was 16, but I was like three months short of being 16. So it’s a long story, as you know if you’ve read the book, about getting the interview at Abbey Road. So I was there, and on the second day I was learning the ropes, and that’s when the Beatles came in to record “Love Me Do.”
What was your very first impression of them?
The first impression on that day was the way they were dressed, obviously. But on the first session that I actually physically worked on, I can quite remember the humor and the attitude in the studio. I was imagining all the bands and the artists that had been in the studio, which at that time was a very regimented system. You know, George Martin was the schoolmaster, and they were the kids in the studio, and they sort of obeyed what he said. But they changed that. Basically, they were against the establishment as it was at that time. That was the attraction for us youngsters at that time-the anti-establishment part.
How many songs a day were recorded, and how much time was spent per song.
Their first album was made in one day. But the normal protocol-because we were working for a corporation, EMI-was to record three songs in the morning, three in the afternoon, and three in the evening. But of course, that was a great learning experience for me. It was capturing the moment in time. I’ve been brought up capturing that emotion from the studio floor, not from the control room per se.
Eventually, you were asked if you wanted to be the first engineer on the Revolver record. Were you scared to death?
Sure I was. I was asked to go to the manager’s office and George Martin was there, and he said, “Do you want to record the Beatles?” And then my heart sort of sank. I was playing this little mind game where this little red ball was bouncing from yes to no, yes to no. It was almost going on to no, and then I thought, well, I’ve got nothing to lose. So then it stopped on yes, and I said yes. Prior to that, I had said, “Can I tell you tomorrow?” and he said, “No, I’ve got to know now.” That was like a week or two weeks prior to starting the Revolver sessions.
So they went straight into the studio, and I had the mic open. And you know, I’m feeling nervous enough, but I think it was Harrison who said to George Martin after looking through the control room window, “Where’s Norman?” And it was at that point that I realized that I hadn’t told them that I was going to take over for Norman Smith, the first engineer [on the earlier records]. Except I think there was a nod and a wink between George Martin and Paul. I think it must have been discussed with Paul. Anyway, that made me feel even worse. I really felt pretty dreadful.
So the session started, and we started “Tomorrow Never Knows.” One of the requests from John was that he wanted the vocal on this track to sound like the Dali Lama singing on a mountaintop 25 miles away. And obviously, we had no plug-ins or software. What we’ve got is like two tape machines and a [recording console] and one echo chamber at that time. So anyway, I’m looking through the control room window into the studio and saw the revolving speaker-which was the Leslie speaker that was from the Hammond organ-and I thought, well, if we could get John’s voice to go into that revolving speaker, maybe we’ll get something that sounds a bit new. So we tried that, and of course, that is what we did use, and it’s on the last verse of the track of the song. That sort of won John over.
What did you have for other gear?
The only thing I had was Fairchild 660 limiters and some Altec compressors. That was the only outboard gear. The EQ on the [recording] desk was just top and bottom-treble and bass-no selectable equalization, but fairly good mic amps, I guess. And we had one outboard equalizer, which was plus 10 or minus 10 at 3.5, 2.7 or 10k. And on a lot of the harmony vocals on some of the Beatle records, what I used to do was to put those in series and put maybe 30 dBs at 2.7 on the vocals, which was to achieve this harshness and just change the sound of things really.
I read that you tried something very novel when getting the bass sound…
On most of my records it’s the loudest thing on the mixes. We were always striving to get something a little bit more magical. I think that was one of the things I tried on the bass, which I did on two songs, which were “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” My theory being that if a bass amp can push the sound out, then a loudspeaker should be able to take the bass sound in. So I put a loudspeaker in front of the bass amp and used that as a microphone. But it was pretty hard to control, because I think I had like three Altec compressors on it and just squashed it all up and stuff. It was quite an overpowering sound, again, on mono, of course.
Do you see the console as an instrument?
Absolutely. What happened later on in years was the fact of automation. Because when you’re doing a mix live-if you’re mixing it from 24-track or whatever-and there’s no automation, you’ve got this adrenalin rush. You know, it’s like a performance. You choreograph your mix-like something that comes up at a certain point and you need to remember it, or the fader levels or EQ changes. So you’ve got this incredible adrenalin rush when you’re mixing a track. When you’ve normally finished it, you know you could never really better it, because there’s so much sort of human input that went into that rather than…
When automation started, you know, you could say, “Well, that guitar note wasn’t quite loud enough there, I can just move the fader up.” So everything got leveled out. It’s just sort of linear now. There’s no depth; there’s no light and shade; there’s no emotion. The emotion is gone. Then, when Pro Tools happened and the first Pro Tools operators would get a rhythm track, and then you might turn around and say, “Well, what are you doing to the drum tracks?” And they say, “I’m putting all the drums in time.” I don’t know what that’s like now, but that became the normal situation. All the heart and soul, the drama from the human aspects of the feel of the track, was being diminished because the Pro Tools guy was just moving each drum and putting it in time. So people were beginning to look and not listen.
Getting back to “She Loves You”: The day we did “She Loves You” there was a photo shoot at the back of [EMI/Abbey Road] Number Two studio for the Beatles. I was assistant engineer on that session. The girls and the fans used to line up outside Abbey Road Studios, and that particular day someone had leaked out that the Beatles were going to be there. There were about 300 prams outside in the road, and they broke through the gates and broke into the building. They got into mastering rooms and cupboards and God knows what else. There were two policemen and the janitorial staff of the studio chasing them with brooms and all sorts of stuff. I’m serious, they really were. A couple of them did break into the studio where we were working. The energy that was created from that incident that day is captured in that recording of “She Loves You,” because it’s basically a two-track take-it’s not multitrack-and then I think we overdubbed some chorus vocals. But there’s a certain energy on that record-and it’s basically a live recording-and the energy came from all the girls breaking in!
Did your parents understand what you did for a living?
Were they proud that you pulled this career out of thin air?
Absolutely. But it started off with, “Why don’t you get-what they always used to refer to-a proper job?”
What would you have been if you hadn’t chosen the career path? Had you ever thought of anything else?
Visual art, film work maybe. I was into projectors and cameras and things.
And you’re still into photography, right?
Yeah. But I sort of got off it a bit when the digital format came in. I used to like creating the whole thing myself. Now, it’s just press a button.
Is that analogous to digital recording technology?
Yeah. Again, if we’re gonna go back to that, the first mistake for me is all the software and the plug-ins. What most people seem to do is, as soon as they’d lift a fader up, is put a plug-in on it. But why? Why don’t you create something yourself? Put your own personal brush stroke on it, and then things might move forward.
I was shocked when you said at dinner the other night in so many words that EMI/Abbey Road Studios is really not all that it’s believed to be. It’s kind of enshrined in our mind as being hallowed ground - certainly because the Beatles recorded there. Tell the audience what it was actually like, I mean physically. You mentioned paint was peeling off the walls.
It was very regimented. I mean, it was like working in a hospital. There was light green paint half the way up the wall, and the rest of it was cream. There were the maintenance people, or the technicians with their white lab coats on, and the janitorial staff wears the brown coats. I will always remember the manager when I first started, Mr. Fowler. The only time you used to see Mr. Fowler was lunchtime. He was a recording engineer himself. I guess once you get too old to be a recording engineer yourself, you’re the manager of EMI Studios. Mr. Fowler used to come around at lunchtime, and he used to turn the lights off. Then he’d come around an hour later and turn the lights back on. That was his job.
And they asked them to wear costumes?
While we were doing the orchestra, yeah. So John said, “Let’s dress everyone up.” The orchestral people had to wear tuxedos, and Mal Evans, who was one of the roadies, went out and bought a lot of funny noses and glasses and plastic mustaches, and asked the orchestra, who were mainly classical players-in fact, all classical players-to put these things on. So, obviously, there was a huge uproar, but George Martin and Paul sort of calmed them all down. The other thing was, on the score for “A Day in the Life,” the directive was that it just go from one note to the next note over 24 bars, I think it was. And what you did, you went from that note in your own time, not listening to the person next to you. And they said, “We can’t do that.” So Paul’s out there asking, “What do you mean you can’t?” The players responded, “We can, but obviously, we’ve never done that before. There’s a way of reading notes on manuscripts.” Anyway, a couple of the players in the orchestra-like Alan Civil, who played the French horn on “For No One,” and David Mason, who played the piccolo on “Penny Lane”-they sort of talked their fellows around. So gradually, what was happening was the pop people were breaking down that barrier between the classical people. That was the beginning of the breakdown of that barrier. Anyway, to keep a long story short again, we had done that orchestral thing on that [“A Day in the Life”], and then the piano chord on the end came a few weeks later. We tried an Om sort of sound, but that didn’t work.
Actually, that was the first time we had run two four-tracks in lock [synced together]. The basic record was on four tracks. The rhythm track and vocals were on three tracks. There was one track, the fourth track, was for the orchestral overdub. But what we did for the first time… We thought, “How could we link two four-track machines?” So we paused each motor, because they weren’t crystal-lock motors with the same 50-cycle pulse, and put a grease mark on the tape on the second machine, and went for another take of the orchestra so they were running together. We did the same thing on the second and the third part, because we’d already locked in the first orchestral track on the proper four-track. So we then went for the third part of the orchestra on track two of the second four-track by just lining up the grease pencil and going into record.
But how often did that actually work?
We were only going to know when we came to the mix.
And the players had all gone home?
Yeah, that was fine. We had gotten our basic take on track four with, obviously, some timing errors. The timing was going with the orchestra, so I was ducking a track and lifting up another track to cover it and smooth it out. But the mono mix of that is almost perfect, whereas, on the stereo mix on that orchestral part, you can actually hear a part that’s slightly out of time. So the only thing on that second four-track is just four orchestral tracks!
What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?
Well, over the years, it’s not really a work thing, I think it’s the realization of what we all achieved then. We developed people’s careers [as they are] now from what we were doing then. And I really get emotional over that, realizing that what we’ve done has made everyone-especially, I’m sure, a lot of people here, I would think-because of what we [did back then] is why they work [at what they’re doing now]. And the artist side is still the most important side. It’s got nothing to do with technology, you know! [applause]
And with that, all I can say is, Geoff, you deserve this [Lifetime Achievement Award] so much. Thank you for all that you’ve given us. You are a very, very, very special man. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Geoff Emerick! [applause]