Fab Four: Analog to Digital.

With all of the news and speculation surrounding the forthcoming announcement of downloadable Beatles it is interesting to go back and look at the technology involved in creating The Beatles’ sound.  Most kids today take this for granted, but they truly were technical marvels.  One can even argue, not us however, that technology and its utilization was indeed the fabled fifth Beatle. 

All of the technological wizardry is laid out in the new book Recording the Beatles by Curvebender Press.  It is lavish, lovely, and well researched.  Our review is forthcoming, we just have to finish looking through the beautiful mammoth that it is.  For now, though it is interesting to think about The Beatles as studio animals, and to think what amazing things they accomplished.  Happy reading.

Here’s what we’ve read.

The Fab Four’s catalog long ago went the way of the 1 and the 0, but nothing could be less digital than the way the Beatles’ music was recorded.

Today, effects like delay are easily achieved with off-the-shelf equipment costing a few hundred dollars at most. At the legendary Abbey Road studio, where many of these effects were pioneered, armies of technicians used enormous rooms to literally bounce the sound off walls.

Such analog feats make for a fascinating and timely tale in the hands of Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew, whose deeply researched and timely self-published book Recording the Beatles, shows with painstaking clarity how recording engineers not only captured the band on tape, but augmented its musical palette in ways still emulated around the world. The book, first published in September by Curvebender Publishing, was an instant hit among Beatles fans and music geeks and has just gone into its second printing after the initial imprint of 3,000 copies sold out.

Weighing in at 540 pages, this exhaustive and authoritative retrospective of The Beatles’ recording methods couldn’t be timelier. The band’s label, Apple Corps., is reportedly on the verge of licensing the Beatles catalog to online music stores for the first time, which could mark the second remastering of the Beatles catalog for a digital format since it happened for the CD in 1987.

The authors of the book (both of whom have recorded music professionally) interviewed the engineers who were there and documented their equipment. They pored over studio logs to piece together what the engineers used, how they used it and in which songs equipment appears, so you can hear for yourself.

The result is a sometimes overwhelming look at everything that went into Recording The Beatles — or at least as much as is possible to document in 10 years of research and writing.

The hardcover book, which is large enough to fit into the life-sized replica of an EMI tape case that comes with it, is bursting with photos and descriptions of the equipment, studios and people who helped evolve the Beatles’ sound. Considering the weight of their legacy, it’s hard to approach the Beatles as a book subject without falling prey to repetition or abstraction, but its concrete, well-researched approach brings you close to its subject matter in a way that other Beatles accounts haven’t.

And although the book’s focus is technical in nature, the authors never neglect the human element for long, including lots of anecdotes and photos of the engineers, producers and the Beatles.

Gazing at all these pictures of beautiful, ancient, analog gear, I felt like a character out of Blade Runner looking at a pictures of real animals after they had gone extinct (nearly) and been replaced by clones. The equipment at Abbey Road and the other studios chronicled in the book has a magical feel to it that’s impossible to replicate in a software interface.

It belongs to an opulent, if ramshackle, analog recording age that will never return. With the music industry’s shrinking budgets and growing reliance on digital technology, who can afford teams of amp room technicians in white lab coats, or studio attendants in brown ones? For that matter, where do you even buy 2-inch tape anymore?

Despite the switch from analog to digital recording, there’s a clear link between the recording techniques pioneered by the Beatles’ engineers and those in use today in digital recording software. The book contains a great account of the Beatles’ discovery of automatic double tracking, or A.D.T., which is a perfect example of the sort of inventiveness regularly in effect at Abbey Road Studios.

John Lennon complained about having to record his vocal tracks twice in order to achieve the “double-tracked” effect, which makes a person sounds like he’s singing with himself. While thinking about the problem, Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend took a nap after an all-day recording session, and woke up with a solution.

The engineers played Lennon’s vocal track at 15 inches per second, routing the signal to a second tape deck which recorded it at 30 ips. The other part of the trick is that the second deck had twice the space between the Record head and the Play head as the first, so Lennon’s voice arrived at the Play heads of both machines at approximately — but not exactly — the same time.

By mixing the signal from those machines onto a third, a new sort of double-track effect could be heard — different than the previous kind, because the vocal nuances on the first track were reproduced identically on the second track. Lennon and the rest of the Beatles loved the A.D.T. effect, and began using it on instruments as well as vocals. A good example is Lennon’s vocal on “Revolution 1,” which, incidentally, he recorded lying down in the middle of the studio, as a picture in this book shows.

The book also revealed (to me, anyway) the origin of the word “plug-in,” which is now used to refer to everything from Winamp add-ons to Photoshop effects. Equalization cartridges labeled “Classic” or “Pop” were literally plugged into the back of the mixing desk, which had little holes cut out of it so you could see which cartridge was plugged in.

These plug-ins were somewhat similar to the ones people use today, but engineers back then had a much different way of adding delay. They would route audio to a reverb plate or — more impressively — room-sized echo chambers with speakers and microphones in them, so that delay and reverb could be added by literally bouncing sound off of walls. Today’s desktop producers might have it easier, but they’ll never have it so good.

As tempting as it is to reminisce about the good old days of analog recording, most music people probably wouldn’t back a return to the sort of situation where it took mountains of money to produce music. As edifying and entertaining as it is to read about how the Beatles were recorded, you’d never want to have to do it yourself (unless, perhaps, you could easily afford the cost). But the Beatles’ engineers’ attention to detail, methodical approach and problem-solving mindset is in more demand now than ever, since digital technology has made everything so easy.

As one would expect, this book is sure to fascinate any Beatles obsessive or recording engineer. But I think anyone with even slight technical or Beatles-derived curiosity can flip open the book and be engrossed by what they find. The authors deserve ample credit for explaining the hard science behind the Beatles’ music in such an engaging way.

But, back to the Beatles going digital. Recording The Beatles shows The Beatles’ engineers using the most cutting-edge technology available to record and mix these records. If Yoko Ono and the remaining Beatles stay true to the inventive spirit of Abbey Road when they go digital, they’ll remaster the 13 core albums of the Beatles’ catalog directly from tape into a 24-bit 96-kHz format that would sound even better than lossless files made from today’s CDs. Like their move to 4-track, this would make a lot of sense in retrospect.

Source: Wired

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