Geoff Emerick: Recording The Beatles and Hearing Sound as Color

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The Beatles will forever will be regarded as the band that changed the course of pop music. Volumes have been written about the talents and creative dynamics of the “Fab Four,” and the genius of George Martin as a producer. However, the contributions of their recording engineer, Geoff Emerick, are also an important element of the iconic sound of The Beatles.

Starting as an assistant engineer, Emerick began working with the Beatles at the young age of 16. Around the age of 20, he was promoted from Second to First Engineer, and is credited with recording classic albums such as Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), The Beatles (the “White Album,” 1968), and Abbey Road (1969).

Emerick has a rare neurological condition called synesthesia, whereby different sensory faculties such as vision and hearing become intertwined. He talks about sound design in much the same way that a painter thinks about a palette of paint, hearing sound as color. Perhaps it was this special listening ability and his youth that empowered him and freed him to break away from traditional techniques.

"He helped the Beatles achieve their unique sound by doing unconventional things..."

He helped the Beatles achieve their unique sound by doing unconventional things, such as insisting that the 4-track recorder be placed in the control room, overdriving the preamplifier gain stage to add distortion to John Lennon’s vocals, and overdubbing Paul McCartney’s bass lines with a figure-8 pattern microphone placed in the middle of the room. Emerick was reprimanded by senior engineers for putting studio equipment at risk by sneaking the kick microphone to within three inches of Ringo’s drum—but this is what gave the kick its presence. He debated with management and advocated for more bass energy and louder cuts to vinyl. He would compress, double-compress, and even triple-compress a signal in pursuit of unique sounds. He developed new microphone techniques, automatic double-tracking, and tape looping to build sonic landscapes that had never before been heard.

Emerick sets a special example for recording engineers, which is not to follow conventional thinking blindly, but rather to experiment boldly with new ways of doing things and, ultimately, trust your ear.