Back in the old days, music was recorded in an actual recording studio on analog tape machines.
In the early days of the Beatles, engineers wore white lab coats and neckties. Experimentation was frowned upon and only certain approved personnel could touch the knobs. There was no school to learn the process of sound or audio engineering or making recordings; engineers learned on the job. How did you become a sound engineer? Push your way in by hoping a record company was hiring or finding a producer who was willing to take you on as a trainee.
There are several incredibly entertaining books on the work of the recording engineer back in the 1960s and 1970s, the era of classic rock and roll. You can find them all on Amazon.
I just finished reading a book by producer/engineer Bill Schnee titled Chairman of the Board. Schnee worked with Three Dog Night, Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Marvin Gay, Boz Scaggs, Steely Dan, Whitney Houston, Dire Straits, the Pointer Sisters and many more notable names. I’ll come back to Bill Schnee later.
The other engineers who have written books I recommend are Geoff Emerick, Glyn Johns and Ken Scott. Do not let the subject matter of sound engineering scare you away. These are well-written books with many stories of classic albums and famous people. You might even have a greater understanding and appreciation for the making of the albums you know by heart.
Mention the Beatles music and you think of producer George Martin. During the middle years, when the Beatles did their most experimental work, it was Geoff Emerick assisting Martin in the control room. Emerick started at the bottom of the recording ladder, but after a few years found himself working on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, two songs that made other recording personnel take serious notice. How did they create those textured and creative sounds? Emerick will tell you how. Each of these authors will walk you through their groundbreaking creative accomplishments.
Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (2006) was Emerick’s deep dive into the Beatles creative process. Looking back on those times, recording seemed quite primitive. Imagine recording a song on four-track machines, having to “bounce” the sound by transferring those recorded instruments and vocals to another tape occupying fewer tracks on the new recording so additional instruments or vocals have room to be added. Emerick’s tales from Abbey Road Studios is a must read. He not only takes you into the sessions, but he describes how those techniques were invented.
Above, John Lennon, Glyn Johns, George Harrison and George Martin
If you enjoy the music of the Beatles and want to know more about how they got those sounds, this the book. Emerick is also a good storyteller about those times and each of the Beatles. He went on to become a producer of Elvis Costello, Art Garfunkel, Gino Vannelli, Robin Trower, Cheap Trick, Big Country, Badfinger, Split Enz and many others.
Sadly, Emerick passed away in 2018. He received two of his four Grammy Awards working with the Beatles.
Glyn Johns worked with The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Who, Eagles, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Hallyday, the Band, Eric Clapton, the Clash, Ryan Adams, the Steve Miller Band, Small Faces, Spooky Tooth, the Easybeats, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Blue Öyster Cult, Emmylou Harris, Midnight Oil, Belly, Joe Satriani, Ronnie Lane, Rod Stewart with the Faces, John Hiatt, Joan Armatrading and many more. Maybe his two greatest projects were The Who’s Who’s Next and Eric Clapton’s Slowhand.
By the end of the 1960s, Johns had worked with The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, Steve Miller, Spooky Tooth, The Move, Procol Harum, Traffic, Joe Cocker, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles.
Johns was hired to the unenviable job of taking the hours and hours of tape from the Let It Be sessions and trying to make an album from it. George Martin had produced most of the sessions and he had distanced himself from the project and the squabbling of the Beatles. Johns was brought in to make an album the Beatles could agree on. Not an easy task. He did give the Beatles several versions, but each was eventually rejected. So, Phil Spector was brought in, and the album that was released, as the final studio album of the Beatles, was his version. Paul McCartney hated the strings and choir additions, so many years later, he stripped the songs of many Spector touches, releasing Let It Be…Naked.
Johns also worked with The Who on what became Who’s Next, the alternative album of Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse project. Johns helped the group shift gears from the abandoned Lifehouse project and managed to capture much of Townshend’s musical concept of the angst and pushback against repressive societal forces. This is a high energy album both in musical power and Townshend’s ideas. It was also one of the first serious uses of synthesizers programmed into complex loops and creating totally new sounds. Johns received an associate producer’s credit for his contribution to this classic album.
Johns was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is also known for the way he placed microphones to record the drums, which is famously known as the Glyn Johns Method.
Ken Scott also got his start working at Abbey Road Studios, at age 16, in the studio tape library. Later, after being promoted to second engineer, his first assignment was working with the Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night. He stayed at Abbey Road through the 1960s, working on Beatles for Sale, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album. He also worked with the Jeff Beck Group, Pink Floyd, Mary Hopkins and others.
He left Abbey Road to work at Trident Studios, where he engineered albums by Elton John (Honky Chateau, Don’t Sheet Me I’m Only the Piano Player), Jeff Beck (Truth, There and Back), George Harrison (All Things Must Pass), John Lennon (Imagine), David Bowie (The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Pinups), Procol Harum, Lou Reed, Harry Nilsson (Son Of Schmilsson) Mahavishnu Orchestra (Birds Of Fire, Emerald Visions Of The Pure Beyond), Stanley Clarke (Stanley Clarke, Journey To Love, Schooldays), Level 42 (True Colours), Devo (Duty Now For The Future), Supertramp (Crime Of The Century) and many others.
Scott has a lot of stories to tell, he was there for much of the Beatles’ work, and also got to work quite closely with rising stars Elton John and David Bowie. He engineered two of the best Beatle solo albums, Imagine and All Things Must Pass.
The recording of the Beatle’s’ The White Album was one of Scott’s favorite memories. He remembers it as a great time and was amazed by the wealth of material the Beatles wanted to record. To meet their release date, the Beatles worked in different studios at Abbey Road at the same time, which stretched the engineering capabilities of the studio and meant there were multiple engineers working on different tracks.
Above, Ken Scott producing sessions with David Bowie.
Back to Bill Schnee’s book. I had listened to a couple of interviews he had done to promote his book, including in-depth conversations about working with certain artists. Whereas the other engineers in this blog started working in London, Schnee’s career started in Los Angeles. Schnee was in a one-hit wonder band when he made the transition to the other side of the console. What I found most interesting in Schnee’s book is the amount of remixing work he has done. Until reading his book, I did not fully understand how critical the remixing process is to the quality of the final recording. Mixing the various instruments and vocals can make or break a song. The mix encompasses determining who much of each sound and at what level is used in a given song. Each instrument or vocal can be put through different effects to make them more distinctive and change their presence in each song the remix engineer is assembling. That is not a very good explanation of creating a final mix of audio tracks, but it can very time-consuming and intricate work.
Schnee also talked about his experience going on the road to record performances for live albums. The most interesting story concerns his work with the Jacksons, and in particular, his interaction with Michael Jackson.
Each of these four books takes you inside the workings of the recording studio, how very primitive recording seemed in the 1960s, and how the audio tools have evolved. What I like about these books is the humility of these young engineers, who were capturing such historic recordings and working with these legendary artists. I recommend all four books.