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."
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...
Interview by Paul Tingen
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