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George Martin pushed 1960s sound technology

Zulfikar Abbany
March 9, 2016

Sure, George Martin was the "Fifth Beatle." But in many ways, he was the first, because while John Lennon disputed his importance, Martin created the Fab Four's sound. He was a pioneer in studio technology.

Großbritannien Beatles mit Produzent George Martin
George Martin, second from right, with John Lennon to his leftImage: Getty Images/C. Ware

Oh how surly John Lennon could be. To dispute the importance of the Beatles' studio producer George Martin... In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, Lennon, a founding member of the band, reduced George Martin to a mere translator (not that there's anything wrong with translators).

"He would translate…" said Lennon. "If Paul wanted to use violins he would translate it for him… We would say 'play like Bach' or something, so he would put 12 bars in there."

Later in the interview Lennon complains: "People are under a delusion that they made us, when in fact we made them."

Well, there is a lot of truth in the fact that without the individual personalities of Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and the songs they all wrote, there would have been no Beatles. And certainly no "Fifth Beatle."

But without George Martin, those young lads wouldn't have had a hope in Liverpool (not that there's anything wrong with Liverpool) of making their early records - the ones that made them "Fab" - sound they way they do.

And most of that is down to the experience and guidance Martin brought to the recordings. It was less that he pioneered new technologies, but he and the studio engineers pioneered new ways in which existing technology was used.

Sound technology

Most of the Beatles albums were mixed and released in mono. Monophonic sound reproduction (monaural) is - in a finished recording - one channel of sound. So you only need one speaker to listen to the full range of sound. With stereo you can use any number of speakers to enhance a "surround sound" experience.

Großbritannien Beatles-Produzent George Martin im Studio
Martin was a pioneer in the studioImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

Stereo technology existed in the 1960s but was still largely unused, and this was the way things stayed until late in the decade when the Beatles released "Yellow Submarine," "Abbey Road," and "Let It Be."

George Martin, however, had been making records since the 1950s when he joined EMI studios.

"Tape was in its infancy [in the 50s]," he said in an interview published by Berklee Press of the Berklee College of Music. "[EMI] were still making records on wax, because tape had a very bad signal-to-noise ratio."

It was at EMI's Abbey Road studios, where Martin produced the first Beatles albums, "Please Please Me" and "With The Beatles." The band, like tape, was in its infancy, and had little idea about studio technology.

The first albums were recorded using two track machines - EMI's own British Tape Recorders (BTR). Two tracks was a significant technological limitation, alone for recording the harmonies for the Beatles are so well known.

Later, the albums were released in a stereo mix. This amounted to the two mono tracks being panned to various degrees of either left or right - so, for instance, you would have the vocals on one side and the bass guitar on the other. But it also revealed the level of Martin's studio production techniques.

Panning was also used creatively by the Beatles. On "A Day In The Life" Lennon's vocals were "hard-panned" (to the extreme left or right) at various points during the song.

Curious minds

By 1963, the first four-track machines were in use, and this made it easier to perform "overdubs" on recordings.

Großbritannien Beatles mit Produzent George Martin
Image: Getty Images/Keystone/Hulton Archive

Overdubs were used to add string arrangements, for instance. This was an innovation that Martin, as a producer with an eye for the technology, would have pushed in the studio, especially with all the orchestration he brought to the Beatles' sound.

Their classic studio album "Sgt. Pepper" was recorded on four track machines, which allowed for complicated arrangements. It's an album replete with innovation.

Not only did "Strawberry Fields Forever" feature a Mellotron - arguably the first music sampler - but it also involved an ingenious splicing of two takes, recorded at different tempos and pitches.

The four members of the Beatles were undoubtedly curious minds, full of new ideas. But it was Martin and audio engineer Geoff Emerick who made it happen.

"It was a hassle doing it on four track, because you had to think in advance," said Martin in the Berklee Press interview.

But interestingly he also said the album wouldn't have sounded much different if they had recorded it on a 32 track digital console. This, again, highlights his ingenuity.

Großbritannien London George Martin (R) und Ringo Starr
Starr (left): we were "shit-kickers from Liverpool"Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

"I've always regarded technology as a tool," he said.

Automatic double tracking

Lennon did inspire one notable innovation, that of automatic double tracking (ADT) - although perhaps it was borne more from a desire to avoid boring studio tasks than technical advance.

He hated double tracking his parts, and asked Ken Townsend, a recording engineer at Abbey Road, to come up with a "workaround." Townsend invented ADT.

The idea is that by double tracking a part you could create a fuller sound - rarely will a human player perform the same part exactly the same twice, and so mixing the two takes achieves a "chorused" effect.

ADT simulated the effect, using tape delay with a second tape recorder, the speed of which was controlled by an oscillator. But it also became its own technique and style.

However, Martin's experience as a producer and composer in the early days of the Beatles made him their mentor. He opened the Beatles' eyes to what studio technology had to offer. After all, as Ringo Starr once said, when they started out, they were just a bunch of "shit-kickers from Liverpool."

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