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Recording Methods

EMI's Abbey Road studios, London

Although stereo was rare in the UK in the late 1950's the Abbey Road studios staff were well versed in recording large orchestras "live" onto a twin-track stereo machine for a near- immediate stereo mastered product.  The large sound accordingly filled the spectrum between the left and right channels.  For a noisy rock band consisting of four instruments and a singer a similar but economical "live" method would be employed: a few microphones were set up and instruments were distanced according to their relative volumes.  The singer had his own mike to help the sound engineers "lift" the volume of his voice during recording allowing the words and melody to be heard properly.  Early Rock 'n' Roll was not considered "real" music by the establishment, thus it didn't qualify for much time to be spent on it.  Typically, a three-hour session would be expected to record both sides of the next single and often a cut or two extra (for use on an EP or LP, should sales allow) plus a fundamental amount of post-production (removing seriously bum notes and basic equalising) if necessary.

Rock mellowed into a more commercial "Pop" and using the twin-track machines to separate band from vocals allowed the engineer, given time, to play with the sound on each track, with a bit of EQ here, a touch more volume there, etc, so the best mono mix could be obtained to give a better, punchier sound for potentially bigger sales.  A good example to hear this type of recording is Gerry & The Pacemakers early singles, especially their third no.1, "You'll Never Walk Alone" in 1963.  The Pacemakers, including Gerry Marsden's guitar, appear on one track with the orchestra backing. The other features Gerry's lone voice, but you can easily pick out the sound of his plectrum as it furiously scrubs across the strings.  Another would be "Boys" off the Beatles' first album. Ringo sings this one and so has to appear on the same track as his drums as, for obvious reasons during the live recording, cannot be separated effectively as he is always within a few feet of the skins and cymbals.  Amongst others, Johnny Kidd was often recorded in this way, thanks to the well-rehearsed, tight, punchy sound of his respective backing crews who managed most times to put a song down in only a few takes.  Thus, many of their recordings have a "live" feel to them, albeit a little polished.

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Kidd & Green onstage

Johnny Kidd and Johnny Spence onstage, 1964

Before long the more adventurous engineers began recording the backing track - instruments only - on one track.  The best "take" would then have the vocals "overdubbed" on the adjacent track until a satisfactory "take" had been achieved.  Either then or at a separate "mixing" session the tracks would be blended into the one mono master for cutting into a 7-inch single.  Joe Meek, the maverick independent producer ("Telstar", "Johnny Remember Me") had tracked this way and more for years.  Using two tape machines, one a twin-track job, he would record a bands' rhythm section, copy the result onto the other machine adding various additional instruments, finally the vocals, even double-tracked.  A Joe Meek production may have been "bounced" in this fashion up to six times.  And the power literally jumped out of the speakers at you.  Otherwise, the more usual type of producer like George Martin used their experience and ingenuity gained from many years of experience.  In Martins case his many comedy recordings stood him in good stead when it came to dealing with the demanding Beatles, to double-track the vocals or instruments or indeed add any required sound or new effect to good effect.

As time went on more and more experimentation took place to increase the commercial viability of record companies' recordings.  When 4-track recording arrived at the more sedate Abbey Road Studios in late 1963 it meant greater flexibility and control - the demanding Beatles couldn't wait to play.  As a member of the Viscounts, Gordon Mills had already recorded his song "I'll Never Get Over You" which he later gave to Kidd and co. when he became their manager.  Drummer Frank Farley would be shielded behind a screen, Mick Green and Johnny Spence would be placed a little distance away (but still within view of Frank) while Johnny Kidd would be behind a screen somewhere in the middle, again not out of sight of the guitarists and their 100-watt amps.  If more than two or three takes were required, the reason would normally be attributable to Either Kidd or his recording manager Walter Ridley wanting alterations to the arrangement.  With Kidd and his crew, many of their recordings were recorded pretty much in live takes in the studio.

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The first run-throughs or takes saw the Pirates take the song at a faster lick, and it didn't sound quite "right".  Once slowed down, it became more commercial in appeal but at this point had a different ending.  As it was agreed that the rest of the take was fine, a new "edit piece" was recorded to stick on the end to give the finished single a punchier ending.  Also, Kidd double-tracked his vocals a-la Lennon & McCartney for the first time and the result was a return to the top five with a strong, memorable single in a year swamped with many great cuts.  The formula was repeated on three follow-ups.  Despite the advances in studio technology the April 6th/7th sessions still sound as if recorded in the usual, raw, "live" style as previously - band on one track and Johnny one another with no discernible extra overdubs evident.  Such was the full sound and intuitive nature of the band, plus the type's of material recorded for the abandoned "Lost Album" project (albeit now augmented by organist Vic Cooper) that overdubs were unlikely to add much to the the Kidd's renditions anyway.

When 8-track recording became available at Trident Studios in London during 1968 the Beatles raced down there to record "Hey Jude", eventually their biggest selling single.  (My sincere apologies for a long-time mistake of getting the studio name wrong before!)  The enormous potential allowed an instrument, say a lead guitar, to be laid down as many times as it took to achieve the best take possible - time permitting - without losing the previous "best" take.  The 8-track tape of John Lennon's anthem "Let It Be" boasts two versions of lead guitar courtesy of George Harrison, one was mixed into the single while the other made it into Phil Spector's remixed version for the "Let It Be" album.  (No version with both solos played together has been made.)  Technology advanced apace. 16, then 32 tracks, etc. allowed the likes of Queen to make indulgent recordings that made a four-man group sound like an orchestral Rock Opera.  'Nuff said.

Digital computing with limitless virtual recording tracks, ubiquitous sampling and ease of copy and paste procedures enable music makers to force new sounds and aural vistas from their equipment.  Thanks to countless engineers and visionaries over the last fifty years or so, it's entirely possible that almost anyone can (and has) produced a number one hit from the comfort of their bedroom.  Now that's something that may have put a big grin on Joe Meeks' face, had he lived to see it....

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This website is maintained by Adrian Barrett.  Adrian Barrett, 1998-2006.
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