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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

5 Times Geoff Emerick Saved The Beatles In The Studio

9:25 AM Posted by Nicole M

The Beatles world has lost another major figure with the passing of Geoff Emerick on October 2, 2018. Geoff served as George Martin's right-hand man in the studio as The Beatles' recording engineer, and played a critical part in helping the band achieve the sounds they wanted. It would not be incorrect to say that, without Geoff Emerick, many landmark Beatles recordings would not have the "signature sound" that they do.

Here are five instances in which Geoff Emerick's ideas and influence in the studio were critical to the finished recordings:

Yellow Submarine

In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick says that The Beatles wanted the sounds of water, boats, and marine life to help shape the "Yellow Submarine" recording. With George Martin out sick for this recording session, it was Emerick who oversaw the recording of various sound effects, like blowing bubbles in a glass of water through a straw.

When John Lennon decided that he wanted his voice to be "recorded underwater to simulate being in a submarine," Emerick "thought to get a bottle of water and put a microphone in the water and get him to sing to that." Recognizing the danger this posed (electronics and water don't usually mix), Emerick "put the mic in [a] condom and put it in the bottle." That particular take didn't end up getting used on the final record, but now you know: John once sang a vocal through a microphone wrapped in a condom, submerged in water!

Paperback Writer

Paul McCartney had been listening to a lot of American records prior to the recording of "Paperback Writer," and he loved the heavy bass sound that these recordings featured. As Emerick recalls, Paul came to him and said "[Paperback Writer] is really calling out for that deep Motown bass sound ... so I want you to pull out all the stops this time." 

Emerick's solution? "It occurred to me that since microphones are in fact simply loudspeakers wired in reverse ... why not try using a loudspeaker as a microphone?" With that, Emerick re-wired a loudspeaker, "conducted a few experiments," and discovered that "I was able to achieve a good bass sound by placing it up against the grille of a bass amplifier, speaker to speaker, and then routing the signal through a complicated setup of compressors and filters."

"Paperback Writer" owes its signature bass sound to Geoff Emerick's creativity.


John was proud of his new song, "Revolution," and wanted the guitars to be particularly crunchy, loud, and nasty. Nothing Emerick had been able to do in the studio up to that point had satisfied John, until finally Emerick hit upon an idea that could easily have gotten him fired: "no amount of mic preamp overload had been good enough for [John] ... I decided to try to overload two of them patched together, one into the other ... I knelt down beside the console, turning knobs that I was expressly forbidden from touching because they could literally cause the console to overheat and blow up."

Emerick found the distortion sound that John wanted, a sound that set the bar for future distorted guitar effects, and all because he was willing to push the limits and "come up with the maximum amount of overload the board could take without bursting into flames."

Strawberry Fields

John's signature song has a signature sound that owes a lot to Geoff Emerick. "Strawberry Fields" had been recorded in dozens of different takes over many weeks, and in the end John liked the beginning of one take, but liked the end of another take. He wanted the two takes spliced together, which normally would have been no problem, except that the two takes had been recorded at different tempos, and different speeds.

The splice would have been obvious. The song would suddenly be playing at a faster speed, in a different key. As Emerick explains, in today's technological age "a computer can quite easily change the pitch and/or tempo of a recording independently of each other, but all we had at our disposal was a pair of editing scissors, a couple of tape machines, and a varispeed control."

But with a demanding John Lennon leaving the problem in his lap with a flippant "you'll figure it out, Geoff," Emerick rose to the challenge: "After some trial-and-error experimentation, I discovered that by speeding up the playback of the first take and slowing down the playback of the second, I could get them to match in both pitch and tempo."

Tomorrow Never Knows

Perhaps Emerick's most recognizable contribution to a Beatles recording is his work on "Tomorrow Never Knows." John wanted his vocal on the final verse to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a faraway mountain, and it became Emerick's responsibility to figure out how to make that happen.

At one point, John even insisted that Emerick suspend him upside down from the ceiling with a rope, and swing him in a circle around the microphone while he sang!

Happily, Emerick found a more creative solution: "The studio's Hammond organ was hooked up to a system called a Leslie – a large wooden box that contained an amp and two sets of revolving speakers ... nobody had ever put a vocal through it." With a bit of re-wiring, Emerick was able to feed John's vocal through the Leslie's rotating speakers, giving it that distinctive sound that is heard on the final recording.

Rest in peace, Mr. Emerick. "Your name liveth for evermore."