Tale Of The Tape

I’ve been reading Here, There, and Everywhere, a memoir by the Beatles’ recording engineer Geoff Emerick, and enjoying it no end. Though Mr. Emerick’s name may not be familiar to the public at large, it’s a very different matter for those of us in the recording studio’s hermetic brotherhood; in our little pantheon, he is Jove.

The other day I had just read his recollections of the recording of Strawberry Fields Forever, when a few hours later I noticed in Science Daily an item about that very song (thanks also to Bob Wyman, who sent me the same link shortly thereafter). It seems that one Jason I. Brown, a Dalhousie University math professor with an abiding interest in Beatles arcana, had spent some time puzzling out the numerical details of a tricky little edit that Emerick and producer George Martin had made to join two takes together at John Lennon’s request, and had written a brief item about it in a mathematical newsletter.

The problem was that the takes were not only recorded at different tempos, but also in different keys. The preferred intro, from Take 7, had been recorded at 85 beats per minute in the key of A, while Take 26, the take to be used for the body of the song, was in the key of B, at 107 BPM.

To match the two takes and make a seamless edit would be trivial nowadays, because digital audio software allows us to alter pitch and tempo independently: we could pick the tempo we liked, and the key, and let Pro Tools do the rest. But this was 1966, and all that Emerick and Martin had to work with was two pieces of tape. Changing the tape speed would affect pitch and tempo together.

To solve the problem, then, they decided to try to split the difference — to speed the intro piece up a bit, and slow the body of the song down a little, making the pitch meet somewhere in between the two original keys. It wasn’t a perfect solution, though, because when the tape-speeds were adjusted so the pitch matched up, the tempos, though closer, were still a bit off. Also, everyone liked the stately tempo at the beginning of Take 7.

What to do? John, who had little understanding of studio technology, was insistent that the beginning had to be Take 7, and the production team didn’t want to disappoint him. Emerick (who was all of about twenty at the time, by the way) spent hours trying to make this edit work, and looking for the right place to make the cut. Finally, he and Martin decided to let Take 7 start at the natural tempo, then gradually (and, they hoped, imperceptibly) speed it up until the edit point they had settled on (which was at the word “going” in the second chorus, about sixty seconds in: “let me take you down, cause I’m / going to...”). The tempos still differed by about 11 beats per minute, though, which made the edit sound a bit jarring — so instead of splicing the tape at the usual 45°, Emerick cut at a much shallower angle, making the join more of what we call a “cross-fade”.

Reading all this in Emerick’s memoir brought back a lot of memories for me. When I was coming up as an engineer back in the Seventies, this was still how we did things, and I spent many an hour splicing little bits of tape together in the same sort of way. (My mentor Tony Bongiovi, the owner of Power Station Studios, was a phenomenal tape-editor — one of the best I ever saw — and he made it very clear that any engineer on his staff should be able to cut tape fast, fearlessly, and musically, as indeed all engineers were expected to do back then.) It’s interesting to read Dr. Brown’s mathematical analysis, which is very accurate and informative, but I can tell you that what happened in that control room at EMI Studios was strictly a seat-of-the-pants operation, relying only on four expert ears and two steady hands.

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  1. Ron D says

    Yes, I read that book and loved every word of it. I was impressed by Emerick’s innovative approaches and solutions, particularly on Lennon’s request to sound like he was singing on top of a mountain for the Revolver session on Emerick’s first day. Also, close mic-ing the drums (a common practice, almost a necessity for well over 40 years now) was against the rules at Abbey Road back then, but Emerick was bold enough to do it anyway.

    I know that George Martin is often credited as the genius behind the Beatles, but I think that title goes to Emerick, not Martin. The book reveals how Martin had little control over Lennon, while Emerick made the real magic happen. As unpopular as I may be for saying this, IMHO, it should be Sir Geoffrey, not Sir George.

    And Mal, you should read Phil Ramone’s book, Making Records, for a similar inside look on some of the most popular songs and artists of the 70s and 80s. The Sinatra sessions (for Duets, I believe) are hair-raising from an engineer’s/producer’s standpoint.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Ron – I’ll get a copy of Phil Ramone’s book. (I did a few projects with Phil long ago, and I know firsthand how many stories he has to tell — he spent most of those sessions telling them!)

    Posted March 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink