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George Martin

George Martin

The career of producer George Martin has spanned more than three decades and has embraced the extremes of technology — from basic 4-track recording with The Beatles to the cutting edge of digital at the new AIR Lyndhurst studios. Paul Tingen talks to a legend in recording history...

For those of us who lament the limitations of our 4, 8, 12, or 16-tracks, it's good to be reminded that one of the world's most legendary and successful records was recorded on a simple 4-track. In 1966, George Martin recorded Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at Abbey Road Studio number 2, applying elaborate bouncing techniques to get The Beatles' wild imagination onto tape, and improvising with reverb chambers and a primitive plate to add ambience. Digital reverbs didn't exist, let alone delays and samplers, yet the result created with that simple equipment made history and is still eminently listenable today.

"The old adage garbage in, garbage out works for music as well as anything else," comments Martin. "After a period in the '80s when technology was getting in the way of music, people are waking up again to the fact that what it's about is real music and that technology is only a tool. When you have good musical material, you can record a good record on almost any equipment, as we did with The Beatles in the '60s. No matter how good the technology you have, it's no good unless you actually put some decent stuff into it."

Martin is talking from the new AIR Lyndhurst Studios in Hampstead Heath, a stunning 12 million pound studio complex jointly funded by the Chrysalis Group and Pioneer, the Japanese hi-fi manufacturer, The construction of AIR Lyndhurst was overseen by the former Beatles's producer. AIR Lyndhurst is already said to be 'the studio against which all other studios in the world will be measured', the absolute bee's knees in terms of recording in the '90s. In short, it's the Rolls Royce of recording, and just as it can be informative for the owner of, say, a Fiat Panda or a Mini to read about a brand new top-of-the-range car, hearing about the kind of thinking and technology that went into AIR Lyndhurst can be illuminating for home recordists. George Martin started the AIR company (Associated Independant Recordings) together with several other producers, as far back as the mid-'60s. In 1969 they opened AIR Studios in London's Oxford Street. The studio established itself at the leading edge of the UK recording industry with a 16-track recording facility; they were the first in the UK to go 24-track, the first to install desk automation, and one of the first to acquire a digital multitrack in the late '70s. "We kept pace with technology, which is absolutely necessary if you're in the firing line of the recording industry," comments Martin. However, the lease on the Oxford Circus premises ran out in the early '90s, besides which the central London location had graduated from blessing to curse, with the increasing security demands of central London, and problems with parking, loading and unloading. So in the late '80s the AIR management started to scan London for an alternative location. They found Lyndhurst Hall in Hampstead, a large, dilapidated, Grade 2 listed former Victorian Methodist Mission Church.


The approach of AIR Lyndhurst is based around an emphasis on live recording which has returned in recording projects over the last few years.

"As I said before, I think that during the '80s, technology was getting in the way of music. Music was becoming more and more computerised. There were spates of recordings that were made on computers and they sounded like it. It got very sterile. So the emphasis in AIR Lyndhurst is very much on making an environmentally attractive studio with lots of daylight and live areas which will inspire people and encourage then to play live.

"Of course, the technology has to be the very best and the staff have to make sure that it's utterly reliable and that nothing goes wrong, but it's only a tool that we're using. We don't believe in building a studio that only people with a degree in physics would enjoy. The real spirit of music is in the performance and in people playing together, that really is the heart of music. Too many records have been made like a conveyor belt, where one person comes in and does his overdubs and then another and they never actually play with each other."

This cri du coeur from the world's most renowned producer is in part an echo from his experiences in the '60s and '70s when he took part in the recording of many classic records. The foundation of them was inevitably real musicianship and live performance. This was not only the case in the recordings he made with The Beatles, but also in his groundbreaking work with, amongst others. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck and America. But most of all, Sergeant Pepper was what Martin called in All You Need Is Ears a "turning point... a watershed which changed the recording art from something that merely made amusing sounds into something which will stand the test of time as a valid artform."

Bouncing from one 4-track to another, Martin squeezed nine overdubs onto four tracks. It enabled him and the band to add all the sound effects to the music and turn the album into a continuous story with a palette of colours never used before in rock music. Notable effects were the animals at the end of 'Good Morning', the randomly edited one foot long stretches of tape with organ recordings which graced 'For The Benefit of Mr. Kite' and the dramatic orchestra crescendo in 'A Day In The Life', in the background of which one can still hear a roadie counting off the 24 bars.


Martin still relishes the anarchic attitude of those days, where perfection certainly wasn't the first thing on anybody's mind. Random techniques like letting instruments float from one side to another in front of a microphone, or consciously encouraging spill between microphones so that they would pick up the natural overtones lost in close miking were the order of the day. Martin: "I think it is right to do things off the cuff, because a lot of mistakes are good mistakes. Things that are never quite intended can work very well. There are many things on The Beatles records that are mistakes, but people accept them as the norm and love them. If you make everything 100% perfect you're like the men in the white suits, everything is dead right, but has no soul.

"That's why I keep saying that one has to consider machines as one's tools and not one's masters, because you can become so obsessed that you become a nitpicker. I've met many groups over the last decade that insisted on every recorded track being absolutely accurate. If they were double tracking they didn't want to hear the double tracking and I would say: 'why double track?' I would plead for humanity, I would plead with them to leave mistakes. Yet you can't blame the machines for that, it's a way of thinking."

Martin asserts that the limitations of having only four tracks can encourage an adventurous mentality: "You have to make your decisions early and therefore accept more things than if you have 80 tracks or something. You can postpone your decisions in the latter case, but you still have to reduce your 80 tracks to two, just like your four tracks." At the same time, he has no desire to go back to using old equipment, even when some of it was sonically superior: "You really cannot stop progress. The old valve desks had a better sound than new desks. The huge valve consoles that we had in the '50s in Abbey Road had a warmer sound than we get today, but you simply can't have a huge multitrack desk with valves. It would take up far too much space. You need transistors. That's progress.

"The same with digital. For a long time there were many ways in which it wasn't as good as analogue. It lacked that warmth and humanity of analogue and sounded clinical. These problems are now being overcome and I think there is very little to choose between analogue and digital now. So one has to go the digital way, because it's the way of the future. Analogue is a dodo. It may be slightly warmer, but it's dying."

Exterior of Lyndhurst Hall, the new home of AIR Studios.

What will hopefully never die, however, is what Martin calls "the heart of music": performance and people playing together and producers and engineers willing to leave human imperfections and creative mistakes. With the actual recording media becoming more and more perfect, in the professional studio world as well as in home studios — what with ADAT and harddisk recording — human imperfection and warmth become all the more important. AIR Lyndhurst is one hyper-modern and upmarket attempt to bridge that gap. But a simple portastudio at home can do it too...


Part of AIR Lyndhurst's Main Hall, viewed from the balcony.

One of the main reasons for choosing the AIR Lyndhurst building was that Martin was particularly attracted to the enormous, 500 square metre church hall.

"The location of the building was right, it was a beautiful building and admirable for orchestral recording." Martin had worked in the '50s and '60s as a producer for EMI, recording much orchestral music in Abbey Road's legendary Studio 1. As a graduate of the Guildhall School Of Music and as an orchestral arranger and composer he has written the music for films ranging from The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night to the James Bond Movie Live And Let Die, and remains active in this field. With orchestral recording playing such an important part in his life, it's not surprising that Martin wanted a studio where this could take place. In the old AIR Studios in Oxford Street there was simply not enough space and every time Martin wanted to record an orchestra he had to resort to Abbey Road or another studio or hall large enough to hold an orchestra. Asked whether realising a studio suitable for orchestral recording is a dream come true, the 67-year old producer nods, yet carries on to stress other considerations in the making of Air Lyndhurst.

"Knowing that we had to leave our Oxford Circus premises, we realised that the only way to go from there was to go on to something even better. We'd been market leaders for 20 years and there was absolutely no point at this time in my life to build a studio which wouldn't be ahead of things. So we had to come up with a studio complex that would not only feature the latest in recording technology, but would also integrate other facilities in ways never done before." So the Martin-led team which oversaw the construction of AIR Lyndhurst decided on a large multimedia complex, integrating audio-visual technology, orchestral recording facilities, mastering rooms and the latest in digital technology. Nearly three years were spent converting the church into the amazing five-studio complex it is today. Much building work was needed, limited by parameters set by the listed status of the building. As the church is located on a busy traffic junction, extensive sound-proofing was necessary, which made it necessary to build structures inside the main building. The end result features two studios which are relatively traditional in setup: Studio 2, featuring a 72-channel Ultimation fitted SSL, is set up as a mix room, and Studio 1, equipped with an AIR custom-made 72-channel Rupert Neve/Focusrite console with GML automation, is ideal for track-laying for rock acts. Available multitrack machines include 48-track digital (Sony 3348), 32-track digital (Mitsubishi X850), 24-track digital (Sony 3324A) and 24-track analogues (Studer A800 MkIII and Otari MTR90 MkII).

Martin grins when he is reminded of his 1979 autobiography All You Need Is Ears, in which he wonders why on earth anyone would ever need more than 24 tracks, and explains that things have moved a long way since then: "Mark Knopfler was in Studio 2 to mix recently and was using no less than 107 channels. That's unbelievable. He and his engineer/producer, Neil Dorfsman had recorded a Dire Straits concert in Rotterdam onto two parallel 48-tracks. When they came here they quickly filled up 90 channels and needed more to accommodate all manner of toys like phasing and chorus, whatever. So we actually had to bring in an extra board for this mix. I said to them: 'I must tell you about Sergeant Pepper.'" So the limits of AIR Lyndhurst's phenomenal facilities were already tested within days of its opening.

AIR management have gone to the limit in their desire to build a trend-setting complex incorporating the very latest technological facilities. With the rise and rise of digital, one obvious option was a completely digital mix room. This became Studio 3, which features a 20-bit AMS Logic II Digital Automated console with 48 x 4 stereo channels. And as sound and image are becoming more and more integrated today, leading to an ever increasing demand (or high-quality sound from TV and film people, extensive audio-visual facilities are one of the other pillars underpinning AIR Lyndhurst. There is a fully digital TV dubbing suite, also with AMS digital console, featuring, like Studio 3, Audiofile Spectra Plus for hard disk editing, mastering and video and TV post-production. This TV dubbing suite also holds the Pioneer VRP1000P recordable video laser disc. In the US and Japan, laser disc is an up and coming alternative to video, and installing what is one of the first laser disc mastering facilities in Europe was one of the main reasons for Pioneer's involvement in AIR Lyndhurst.

There are, of course, all manner of other details which characterise a modern state-of-the-art studio — residential facilities, in-house catering, MIDI tie-lines running across all rooms, Mogami oxygen free cables running everywhere tied to a Lynx Timeline controller which enable any machine in the building to interact with any other. Combined with the central machine room, this means that any desk, or any combination of desks and multitracks can be used for any recording session anywhere in the building.

But the spectacular main hall remains the most unusual and eye catching aspect of AIR Lyndhurst. Featuring a 72-channel Neve VRP Legend Console with Flying Fader automation and recall in the adjacent control room, the hall is not only unusual for being extremely large and high, but also for having an audience seating capacity of about 600, with 120 seats wired for audience reaction, voting and talkback. It's also wired for outside broadcasting units and a TV lighting rig, making it the only dedicated, integrated classical live hall, recording and broadcasting studio in the world.


"I always enjoyed working with the Beatles, but there was one period when they got very tedious - around the time of Let It Be, when they didn't know what the hell they were doing. Sometimes the sessions would go on too long, but in the main I enjoyed working with them enormously.

"I don't think I'm as good a producer now as I used to be. I think I suffer fools less and you have to suffer fools gladly to be a good producer. You must be patient, you must have great tact and you must have that long view. You must know what you want and wait to get it — you can't rush it.

"I remember spending an evening with John Lennon and he said to me 'Everything we [The Beatles] did was really crap.' I said 'John, how can you say that? It was bloody marvellous.' But he said 'No, everything could have been done better.' I said 'Are you saying that you would like to do everything again?' and he replied: 'Certainly everything I ever did I'd like to re-record.' I told him he was out of his mind! 'What about something like Strawberry Fields?' and he said 'Especially Strawberry Fields.' I said. 'I'm sorry John, but I think it's one of the best records we've ever done.' Maybe he's making those records now the way he wants them - he would never get it done on earth!"

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Musical Masterpiece?

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For The Benefit Of Mr Lennon

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Dec 1993

Donated by: Rob Hodder


Recording Studios


George Martin



Related Artists:

Geoff Emerick

The Beatles

Interview by Paul Tingen

This article features:

AIR Lyndhurst Studios

Previous article in this issue:

> Musical Masterpiece?

Next article in this issue:

> For The Benefit Of Mr Lennon...

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