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September 2023
Vol. 22, No. 12

Zen of Recording

Seven Things I Learned from the Beatles

by Sven-Erik SeaholmDecember 2016

When people come over to the house/studio that my wife and I share, they often look at my Abbey Road poster, framed prints of both John Lennon and George Martin, and various other Fab Four paraphernalia and say, “Wow, someone really likes the Beatles.” While it’s true that I do enjoy their music (and I’ve learned that there are actually people who don’t…gasp!), that is not the primary reason for their prominent placement in my working and living space. It’s what they represent in the context of musical and recording history: the highest standard of excellence.

The Beatles essentially began their existence in much the same way many bands did. They worked hard and gigged a lot, got rejected by record labels, and eventually hooked up with a good manager (Brian Epstein) and a great producer (Sir George Martin). What would eventually result is a world-wide phenomenon, that judging from what had come before and what has happened since, will never occur again.

1. Nothing Beats Good, Old Fashioned Hard Work for Results
It is my firm belief that with all the talent and skill the Beatles had, it was their work ethic that made them better and kept them prolific. They didn’t even start off doing their own music! Though they had been writing since very early on, George Martin told them their songs weren’t strong enough for him to go to bat for them with the record company. So instead of parting ways with him, they worked even harder. The fact that your baby niece and your grandmother probably both know a Beatles tune says something for the results.

Here’s another one: While they were working on the Abbey Road album, Paul showed the band the song “Oh! Darling, “ a bluesy torch number with a gritty, belted out vocal, which many believe to be one of Paul’s best. At the time Lennon said to McCartney something along the lines of, “Well, you do the pretty stuff great, but we all know that I’m the screamer, so I should do it.” Paul merely strengthened his resolve and showed up at the studio an hour early every day that week to lay down vocals for it. By week’s end, he finally nailed a take to his (and everyone else’s) satisfaction…and he was Paul McCartney.

2. Try It!
The world’s most popular band could have rested on its laurels, played it safe, and just given the record company essentially another version of the same album ad infinitum. Instead, they gave us perhaps one of our greatest gifts. They parlayed their large budget and creative curiosity into a master course in what could be done in the studio. Tape loops, flanging, automatic double tracking (ADT), microphones in milk bottles, and putting guitars and vocals through rotating speakers are only a small portion of their discoveries still in use today. Hell, while recording “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver, Lennon wanted to be swung around the room by a rope tied to his feet to get the vocal sound he was hearing.

3. It’s Not What You Have, But What You Do With It
The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, with its complex orchestrations and innovative recording techniques, was indeed recorded onto just four tracks. Granted, there were two four-track machines. They would fill up one with bass, drums, and guitars; mix those down to two tracks on the second machine and add the strings, horns, etc.; mix those four tracks onto two tracks on the first machine; then record the vocals on the remaining two tracks. They usually did the vocals last so they’d sound the best. This, of course, took some planning and also necessitated making sure they had the best takes possible, because there was no going back to redo the bass line, guitars or whatever.

4. Commit
It also meant that whatever effects you were using were kept forever. So, if there was a rhythmic delay on the snare, you played to it and heard it on playback. Nowadays, everyone wants to “do it later,” recording without effects so that the exact amount of “seasoning” can be added at mix time. People even record the guitar direct so that they can choose the perfect amp setting after the fact! I understand the concept and have used it myself, but try this: Play through the song one time through your currently preferred amp setup and do another take direct. If you don’t hear a difference in the feel and dynamics, I’ll eat your copy of the white album.

5. Get It Right or Make It Right
The song “Strawberry Fields Forever” (originally recorded for Sgt. Pepper’s but ending up on Magical Mystery Tour) is actually a composite of two entirely different takes, numbers 7 and 26. What’s amazing about that is that they’re in two different keys and tempos! John liked the sweet, stripped down approach of the earlier takes and wished they could retain that vibe and join it to the more grandiose version it had evolved to. Take 7 was slower and down a half-step from the later version, so it was decided they would try to speed it up and splice it to 26, which was slowed down by roughly the same amount. It worked! It happens approximately one minute into the song, after the “Let me take you down…” part. Listen and see what rewards fearless thinking can bring.

6. Back It Up
Great care was always taken in documenting every Beatles recording session. That’s how great books like The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn came to be. Likewise, the original recordings were backed up with diligent redundancy and stored with equal thoughtfulness. When you think about all the technological advancements in the last 30-40 years (Stereo LPs, 8-track cartridges, cassettes, CDs, DVDs) it’s worth noting that the high fidelity of all those masters is still available.

7. A Great Song Is Always Better Than a Great Recording
All the technology and expert production in the world will never make an average song a great one, only a marginally better one. A wonderful melody and an imaginative lyric that fits, well…they just might be a start in the right direction.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, mastering engineer and recordist.

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