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The Studio Innovation of Sir George Martin and The Beatles

Monday 3rd of October 2016

2016 has so far seen some tragic losses from the world of popular and recorded music with another huge loss yesterday in the passing of Sir George Martin at 90 years old. The legendary British producer, often referred to as ‘The Fifth Beatle’ became head of A&R at Parlophone records, signing The Beatles and going on to produce nearly all of their recordings.

His production was far reaching, working with artists such as Elton John, Cheap Trick, Kate Bush, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Ultravox, Gerry & The Pacemakers and many more. Though it was his revolutionary work with The Beatles that he was best known for, pretty much writing the template for modern recording. In celebration of his legacy we’re going to take a look at ten Beatles recordings that best showcase their innovation and influence in the recording studio.


Beatles_PaperbackWriter The B side to Paperback Writer was one of the first examples of The Beatles trying to pursue the idea of psychedelia. Recording instruments at faster tape speeds and slowing them down as well as reversing the tape on Lennon’s vocal take. A lot of these techniques would be further explored on later Beatles recordings but Rain showcased the band at an early stage of some of their studio innovations.


Beatles Revolver The opening track from Revolver would have been met with very different ears in 1966 than it does 50 years later. Opening with the joking half speed emulation of George’s ‘1-2-3-4’ before launching into guitar jabs and hard panned drums and vocals – it’s oddness is often overlooked. The Beatles use of the stereo picture may be the most influential of all their use of the studio and Taxman is a pretty perfect example of it.


Beatles - Sgt Peppers Sgt Peppers is often considered The Beatles finest studio effort and Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite is maybe the most complex recording on that record. Inspired by Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royale poster, the band set out to capture a carnival vibe with Lennon saying he wanted to ‘smell the sawdust’ in the sound of the recording. Recording mellotrons, harmoniums and hammond organs, George Martin set out to imitate the sound of fairground organs and calliope music in the middle eight, asking engineer Geoff Emerick to cut up the tape, throw it into the air and reassemble it at random. Equally as impressive was The Beatles and George Martin’s live take of the instrumental section, recording multiple organs, guitar and tambourine and multiple speeds and then being played back at normal speed, shifting the octave the take.


Beatles_WhiteAlbum Some regard Helter Skelter as one of the earliest examples of what would go on to become punk. This track is The Beatles at their most raucous, resulting in Ringo’s ‘I got blisters on my fingers’ line at the end of the recording. Although not as revolutionary as some of the other recordings in this list, it’s undeniable that the recording of Helter Skelter had an important influence on music thereafter.


Beatles - Revolver Eleanor Rigby isn’t the only example of George Martin offering a stunning string arrangement for one of McCartney’s tracks, but it might be his most impressive. Recorded with microphones really close to the strings of the musicians (which wasn’t the norm for the time), the recording allows you to hear the scratchiness of the strings, bringing a closeness and urgency to the song rather than the typical space and ambience of typical string section recordings.



Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour Magical Mystery Tour is peak psychedelic Beatles. There’s huge traces of LSD influence throughout most latter period Beatles but Magical Mystery Tour is the one that sticks to this formula the most. Strawberry Fields Forever was originally recorded as more a live band track (with one of the most iconic mellotron recordings) but Lennon wasn’t satisfied with how it turned out. They then recorded a more esoteric version with altered tape speeds and an arrangement featuring strings and horns. Lennon still not entirely satisfied asked George Martin if they can combine the two. Being that they were recorded in different keys and at different speeds, Martin had the task of combining the two using scissors, two tape machines and a vari-speed control he managed to match the keys by slowing the higher pitched take down to tempo.


Beatles - White Album Probably the most polarizing of all Beatles songs but it’s hard to negate its status in their overall catalogue. Inspired by the musique concrete of Varese, Cage and Stockhausen. The worlds biggest pop band released a recording featuring disparate recordings of found sounds, tape manipulations and ultimate use of the stereo field. An important piece in recorded music.


Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour Distorted vocals, close miked cellos, radio static being tuned in via a King Lear broadcast, innovative mono EQ techniques all result in one of The Beatles most unique and bizarre recordings. Jam packed with psychedelic oddness, I Am The Walrus remains timeless and Magical Mystery Tour’s finest moment.


Beatles - Sgt Peppers Known as one of The Beatles crowning achievements in songwriting, Sgt Peppers is also one of their finest studio efforts. Combining two unrelated compositions the group set the task of joining the two via an orchestra. Recording the orchestra climbing from their lowest to highest register, the group was worried that a single recording of this mightn’t be full enough. They asked if they can synchronize two tape machines together to access more tracks, resulting in the menacing climb you now hear on the recording.


Beatles - Revolver The closing track on Revolver shows the band pushing themselves further in studio innovation than any song up until this point. Taking influence from Indian music the band employed a single droning chord as the harmony for the song which was quite uncharacteristic up until this point. The band then took numerous tape loops, some of which we’re recorded in McCartney’s home studio and featured laugh tracks, classical recordings etc, they then fed different tape machines back into the console and varied speeds to create sound collages and would fade them in and out in real time throughout the recorded track. Although not a performance of a traditional instrument, this is one of The Beatles most impressive performances captured on record and combing all of this with Lennon’s vocals run through a Leslie speaker it makes for one of the most innovative and influential studio recordings of all time.
*Pretty much the only Beatles recordings you can find on youtube are cover versions or live versions so unfortunately we haven’t been able to include any listening format in this article. But realistically, if you’re on this website then you are a music fan and you really should own these albums if you don’t already.
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