Geoff Emerick - producer/engineer
The Beatles, Wings, Elvis Costello, Nick Heyward, Big Country... all have at one time or another come under the watchful ear of this producer/engineer.
Geoff Emerick is a musician's producer: one of a rare breed who has not been swept up in the modern day preoccupation with high technology. He is straightforward both as a person and in his work. Janet Angus met up with him at AIR Studios to talk about his work and how he maintains his high standards, both as a producer and recording engineer.
At 16, Geoff Emerick found himself working as a tape op at EMI Studios, where he virtually grew up with the Beatles.
'I was just fascinated with music and recording. I didn't necessarily want to become a recording engineer and I didn't know anything about how records were made, but I used to listen to records and think that if I'd been recording that I would have made this louder or done that differently. I did the usual thing of writing to every studio, which of course in those days meant only four or five: Philips, Pye, Decca and EMI - all the record companies. EMI is a great training ground because you are taught about transferring to disc, so you learn things about cutting that you need to know as an engineer, and certain things you must do on tape to avoid cutting problems. A lot of engineers these days don't know about those things.'
This was 1962, the year the Beatles embarked on their career. The EMI training consisted of 18 months of tape operating, followed by cutting playback lacquers, and then master records. His first job as second engineer was with Norman Smith who engineered the first Beatles recordings. By the time Norman moved on to pastures green, Geoff was an engineer in his own right. 'My first recording as a first engineer was Pretty Flamingo by Manfred Mann, and then it was the Beatles from Revolver onwards.'
The work was prolific and varied: sessions with George Martin with acts such as Cilla Black and Matt Munro as well as film scores and big classical sessions.
'Working with classical music influenced me. It had aspects I miss from a lot of recordings and music these days; the human element, the emotion - especially when you're recording something like grand opera. I was also, obviously, very influenced by the Beatles; I virtually grew up with them after all. My first recording with them was 'Tomorrow Never Knows' from Revolver, with all the backwards loops and effects. Sergeant Pepper was a great milestone. The idea we emphasised was that everything must be different - each recording, miking, ideas, working out flanging and putting things through Leslies. We were just experimenting all the time. And, of course, we had to do it all with tape; there weren't any gadgets in those days. Using tape for effects still sounds best to me; I can always detect electronic effects. I always use tape for phasing effects, and try to ADT with tape. There is a certain quality you get with electronic boxes.'
Sergeant Pepper was recorded on 4-track machines, and in many ways the album turned the industry's ideas on recording upside down. It was the first time anyone had taken off the front skin of a bassdrum or had close miked a drum kit. It was the first time headphones were used for foldback in the studio instead of speakers.
'We recorded the drums, a rhythm guitar and piano or bass onto one track of the 4-track. The sounds had to be there and the correct balance had to be there because you couldn't change it afterwards. If we were starting a new song Paul would demo it round the piano if it was one of his or vice versa, or John would demo it on the guitar if it was his. Sometimes they would have prepared a tape but it would still only be voice and one instrument. We would then arrange the song and they would learn their parts. Then at one or two in the morning we would have got it into almost perfect shape. By the end of that night's session we might well have ended up with the final rhythm track. Then overdub the next day. In those days we did a lot of pre-production work and so continually had to think two stages ahead.'
Having served eight or nine years at EMI, Geoff felt that it was time to move on and went to Apple. By this time George Martin had formed his AIR production company with fellow producers John Burgess, Ron Richards and Pete Sullivan, although they had not yet built their studio. At Apple Geoff spent two years building the Apple studio and a further two years working in it, before he returned to George Martin in 1972.
Within a year he was hard at work recording Paul McCartney and Wings: Band On The Run. They went off to a studio in Lagos, Nigeria. Wasn't this rather a strange thing to do?
'I suppose we did it for a sense of adventure or something! It was an EMI 8-track studio, and it was very primitive. We came back to AIR to overdub the strings. Some of it was copied on to 16-track for orchestral overdubs, but that was the only reason. I was also working on another project at the time, so I was under great pressure. I had to mix Band on the Run in four days, but it was a very successful album for Paul and won lots of Grammies that year.'
This was Geoff's third, the other two being for Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road.
It was around this time that Geoff, in common with many of his fellow engineers, began to become increasingly frustrated with the producers of the day. Having worked for so long with the high standards, professional thoroughness and know-how of George Martin it struck Geoff particularly hard. 'A lot of producers were doing less and less and leaving more and more to the engineer or having to ask his advice, but ultimately receiving the credit for it. In the mid 70s, every good quality engineer you talked to was bitching about the quality of the production and the fact that producers were taking all the credit.'
This brought about the birth of the producer/engineer and Geoff's work in this area included albums for Robin Trower and Gino Vanelli. The last few years have seen him in the studio with Elvis Costello's cult album Imperial Bedroom, Paul McCartney's 'Tug of War', 'Pipes of Peace' and the mammoth Broadstreet epic, all the America albums with George Martin (starting from Holiday) and the Little River Band.
'Working with America was most pleasurable. We took the Record Plant mobile to Kauai and rented a house where we set up a studio. This was really what sparked off AIR Monserrat because it was a terrific working environment.'
Geoff's approach to recording, recording techniques and even instruments could almost be described as unusual, and is best illustrated by some of the projects he has done. A natural aversion to things electronic and gimmicky tends to dictate a particular method and sound.
'With Elvis' Imperial Bedroom, the approach from the production side was to go back to the basics. Elvis is a very spontaneous person and the aim was to capture that spontaneity on tape, so we recorded at 15ips on the multitrack to try and take away the 'hi fidelity' of the sound, and we also used a 15ips ¼" tape recorder for mixing to get an older tape-compressed sound rather than the ordinary compression sound. What's more, most of the recordings are first and second takes.' Also the choice of equipment was made with a view to enhancing an 'older' sound.
Although on this album, recorded at AIR, Geoff was engineering and producing, he would rather not have to carry out both jobs at the same time. 'Jon Jacobs was the second engineer on those sessions and proved very useful, especially when dealing with the vocals, where you have to concentrate on the quality and at the same time listen to make sure that it's in tune and a good performance. I let the second engineer take over if at all possible.
'On a couple of mixes I threw valve Fairchild 660 limiters across the stereo mix. Things like that are very hard to get hold of. I've often used old valve mics, but don't so much these days because of their unreliability. The Fairchild limiters actually liven up the sound whereas modern limiters don't. There are a few small studios around that offer valve facilities but the equipment is very difficult to find and its second-hand value is enormous. Until Sergeant Pepper, all the equipment had used valves. Then at EMI Studios they had changed to a transistor mixing console and it was already apparent that the transistors coloured the sound on certain instruments such as drums and guitars. Not many engineers can have experienced the transition from valve to transistor.'
This is probably why, with his acute and critical ear, Geoff finds so much of the 'state-of-the-art' studio technology detrimental to music.
'The credit on Elvis Costello's album says it was produced by Geoff Emerick from an idea of Elvis Costello's, which is really how it was. The two got off to a good start with the vocal sound. 'In order to accomodate all of Elvis' lyrics and get the breathing right, we had to overlap the lines and join them together on some songs, and those overlaps would sometimes come from opposite sides of the stereo picture. It was very effective. As for Elvis, it was the first time he had experienced his vocal mixed up front. It had never been remixed that loud and I think it took him a bit by surprise that his voice was so prominent, maybe he was a bit modest about his voice. He did, however, become more aware, and used to rewrite some of the lyrics which weren't strong enough once they'd become prominent. We spent three to three and a half weeks recording 18 tracks and then had a break. Overdubbing took two weeks and we then mixed for another two weeks.'
Nick Heyward was interesting because of Geoff's aversion to technology extends to embrace synthesisers as well as studio gadgets.
'The business is divided completely. You have people who are into computers and synthesisers and then you get those who are interested in real music, real strings and so on. At one time at Apple we used to have this huge joke where we would say someone had phoned up with a trio who wanted to book in for 24-track. We thought it was a huge joke in those days, but of course it isn't necessarily. Then here at AIR the other day one of the girls was telling a engineer that he had strings on a particular session and he said 'Yeh? Which instrument is it?'
'On Nick's album I wouldn't use any synths. We used a string section on two of the tracks. One of them was a 65-70-piece orchestra with Nick singing the vocal live. It was the only way to get the feel and the emotion from Nick's vocal performance.
'I think it is intersting to compare the approach on this album to that on Elvis's. This time we did it at 30ips on the multitrack and used 30ips ½" mastering.
'I don't like Dolby noise reduction, and have never used it. Technically, if you've recorded properly you don't need them. Also, I didn't want synths. My reason for working with Nick was that although he had just left Haircut 100 I thought he had great potential and everybody has got to start somewhere. The band we had was great: Dave Mattacks on drums, Tim Renwick on guitar and Pino Paladino played some bass. So first of all we looked at the songs and decided what we wanted to keep and what we wanted to restructure. We then worked on the intros, the middle sections and the ends and made a couple of drastic lyric changes because as we progressed, the feel of the basic rhythm track was sometimes changed from what Nick had felt about them originally.'
The orchestral tracks; 'Day it Rained Forever' and 'Boy at Sea', were recorded at Abbey Road in the huge Studio One. Although working with an orchestra was a new experience for Nick, he came to terms with it very well; Geoff had thought that he would be very nervous, 'but if he was, he didn't show it. And it paid off on the vocal performance.
'We didn't use very many effects. One of the tracks; 'Atlantic Monday,' was done in one take, including brass, basically to capture the spirit. I do try to record everything in one go quite often. It gets very tedious overdubbing again and again and you just end up lacking feel or natural dynamics. I might use effects sometimes on drums and things, but I can't get into this laborious thing of spending hours simply with gadgets.'
In 1977, Geoff was once again whisked off by the McCartney entourage to record London Town. The Record Plant equipment was again utilised, this time built on to the back of a motor yacht. Starting off at St Thomas, one of the Virgin Isles, they had three yachts, one of which became the studio and they constructed a plywood shelter on the back deck to serve as control room (Much to the annoyance of the guy who owned the boat!) which they deadened off with blankets - sound isolation wasn't much of a consideration in the middle of the ocean. The lounge area (which was carpeted anyway and the walls covered in fabric giving good separation), had keyboards ranged along one side and guitars down the other. Through double doors was the stairwell and through more doors was the bar where the drum kit was installed.
'We would anchor in small bays because we couldn't really record under sail, although we did once and found it a bit impractical: people had to hold onto speakers and things to stop them falling over.' The tapes were brought back to AIR for mixing, and what at first sight seemed like a crazy idea turned out to work very well and be a lot of fun.
The next McCartney project was 'Mull of Kintyre', one of the biggest selling singles in this country ever. Another mobile was brought in, (this time it was Rak), which they took up to Scotland where Paul's studio was already half-built. Recording the local pipe band was interesting although it can't have posed any particular problems because Geoff looked rather surprised when it was suggested that it might have. 'The only difficulty is that you can't close mike them, so we used a few room mics and a couple closer to get the drones rather than the chanter part.'
At the time of the interview Geoff was working on a Big Country album from the soundtrack which they had just completed for the film Restless Natives, due to be released this summer. He is very enthusiastic about both the film and the music.
'I like doing film. Before this I did the Robert Stigwood Sergeant Pepper with George. The way we work is to capture spontaneity. It is more creative to tie in with the visual aspect, and it is interesting to see the action and feel the music with it. With Restless Natives it was very hard because it had to be done in only two and a half weeks.'
The initial recording took place at Parklane studios in Scotland where the facilities are relatively limited and they had to take their own video syncing equipment in order to work to picture. The limitations, however, actually worked in their favour. Time was short and because there was no choice of equipment they didn't waste hours deciding what to use.
'Now we're mixing again for the album and a lot of the subtleties of mixing can be incorporated. These get lost when transferred to optical soundtracks for the video, but there was no point in agonising over them because they would have been lost anyway. It is incidental music and it would have been stupid to spend too much time on it. Now we are coming out with lots of surprises; things people didn't realise were there.'
Working to picture provides an added music stimulus, as the picture tends to suggest ideas to the musicians. Working with a basic 4-piece band (no synths!) they recorded to the picture. 'For example, there is a bit where the coach puts on its airbrakes and Mark, the drummer, saw that and played it on the cymbals. Working to film these days using video is so quick and easy and it saves a tremendous amount of time. Using SMPTE code on the video and multitrack, synced through the Q.Lock you can record everything and then the final mix (which was done to digital) is transferred to Mag, which is sprocketed film.'
Since Geoff relies more on good recording than effects for corrective measures, it's interesting to look at some of the equipment he does use and how he uses it. He normally ends up with Neumann U47, U87 or U67 microphones for vocals, and his two favourites for drums are STC 4038 ribbon mics placed overhead, although he does find they need a lot of equalising. The recording of drums and strings could be a mystery to many of today's young engineers who have never actually been confronted with the task.
'With strings it depends on how it's written and on the weight of the rhythm track and it's possible to use close or distant mics. My favourite place for string recording is Abbey Road No 1. It's the finest in the world because of its size and ambience quality. It's even good for small groups such as a quartet because you get the vastness of the studio around the sound.'
And drums? 'I detest drum machines. I find them totally non-musical. I prefer a real drummer any day. Fortunately most bands I work with do use real drums. When you're recording, the kit has got to be balanced with itself, as any good drummer knows, and the basic rule is not to overcomplicate things with multi-miking because you just create problems for yourself with phasing and such. You get people using God knows how many mics, and all they end up with is phase cancellation and cymbals that don't sound right but they don't know why. You can't see phase cancellation, you just have to hear it. Then they throw up a load of ambience mics and the sound just keeps getting smaller; they'd probably do much better with only two. I always think of music in visual terms; different tonal colours. Instruments have different tones and I see these as colours in my mind, for example a bass guitar might be gold, and the cymbal silver, and I see microphones as the camera lens and the tape recorders as the camera and film.'
With the Solid Logic world takeover in full sail, and AIR studios having both SSL and Neve, I asked what he felt about the two types of mixing console. 'I've worked with SSL and found that the computer isn't any faster, and I find the desk colours the sound slightly; by making it more artificial.'
Neve don't come out all shining either: the consoles at AIR London and AIR Montserrat had to have some modifications before Geoff and George Martin were satisfied with them. 'At one time I was missing a sort of sparkle that I was getting from, (at the time) an MCI console. Rupert Neve came and we did some listening tests. It's a question of listening to minute transients.' The result was that Neve took some transformers out of the desk and AIR moved the mic amp into the studio and this helped. 'It was just down to the way Neve were designing their desks, and it was easy to resolve.'
For monitoring Geoff is again of the traditional school in that he prefers JBLs, although correctly set up UREIs will also fit the bill. He doesn't carry his own reference monitors and will use whatever is provided. If it's a new studio he'd probably take a tape to listen to instead.
During his career Geoff has witnessed many changes within the industry: in music, equipment, studios, people, engineers, producers and now the engineer/producer too. I wondered how he actually saw the role of the engineer.
'I think that a dividing line has to be made. There's the technical engineer and the musical engineer. It's becoming more apparent that the number of engineers who can record an orchestra straight to stereo are very few and far between. To me, that's one aspect of the art of recording.
'Technical engineers spend weeks trying to get the right effect on a snare drum. That's fine for them but not for me. It takes a long time to become a recording engineer. How would you define it? Is it perhaps the ability to be able to record right across the board from classical, to rock?'
By way of summing up, Geoff had some general ideas on recording: 'Don't be too clever and fall over yourself. You could go into any cutting room and listen to tapes from all over London and some of them will be good and some atrocious. Some smaller studios shine out against the big ones too. As I've mentioned, it comes down to the fact that today's technology is detrimental to music. I'm not even very interested in digital. If you record at 30ips and master on 30ips ½", I still defy anyone to tell a digital recording from an analogue one. There seems to be this mystique that if you have a bad recording, by processing it digitally it will sound better. I think the reins should be put on for a while. This technological so-called advance they keep talking about just to produce a sound that is thin, uninspired, technically coloured and lacking warmth. Also, because it's so expensive, studio costs go up and therefore the record companies are fighting shy of new acts which have got potential. The technical side is affecting the artistic side.
'Six years ago at the APRS exhibition, which was the only chance for producers and engineers to meet each other, they used to get together and talk excitedly about the music and artists they had been recording. Now all they talk about is the technology; faders, knobs and gimmicks.'
As I said - a musician's producer.
Interview by Janet Angus
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