A Conversation With Geoff Emerick

1997 by Alexandra Burack. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction In Any Form Prohibited Without Written
Permission of the Author.
From his work with The Beatles as second engineer/tape op in 1963, through his promotion to balance engineer during the Revolver sessions, to his outstanding contributions to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - which earned him a Grammy Award in 1968 - Geoff Emerick is respected by Beatles fans and music lovers the world over for his dedication to the Artistry of recorded sound.

It was both an honour and a delight to speak with Mr Emerick at the EMI100 Press Launch at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London, 8th January 1997. I found him to be eloquent, honest, and admirably steadfast in his insistence upon artistic quality as the fundamental priority in recording music.

My main query to Mr Emerick regarded where he thought the role of the recording engineer is headed over the next five years. He responded, "I'll answer that with one word: downhill." He did elaborate, of course, immediately invoking Sgt. Pepper's by way of comparison to the majority of today's pop recordings. "You know, that was originally recorded in mono, monitored on the right-hand side through one loudspeaker. ... The great thing about that time was that the application of engineering was more artistic. ... working with sound was working with colours painted on a canvas."

And prime illustrations of this fundamental aim to "paint pictures in music" - an aim of The Beatles themselves and Sir George Martin no less - abound throughout Mr Emerick's distinguished career with the Fab Four. Emerick helped create, with The Beatles and Sir George, the technical breakthrough used on Tomorrow Never Knows: feeding John Lennon's voice through a Leslie speaker revolving inside a Hammond organ. Lennon's voice on this unforgettable song is such a haunting sound because it is so strongly hued and textured in addition to the tapestry woven by the musical arrangement. The marriage of recording technology and artistic vision is confirmed again in perhaps the best-known edit in rock 'n roll history: Emerick's and Martin's melding new mixes of Take 7 (sped up) and Take 26 (slowed down) of Strawberry Fields Forever to satisfy Lennon's desire to retain the first minute of the former and the rest of the latter. And then there is the vast and eclectic aural canvas of Sgt. Pepper's itself: the stunning orchestral impressionism in A Day In The Life; the surreal darkness of Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite; the cascading brights and shadows of When I'm Sixty-Four; the velvet psychaedelics of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds; and the gorgeous pink silk-over-water texture of Within You Without You, to mention just a few.

"Starting with the basic rhythm track, it was trying to colour it tonally," Emerick remarks of those many Sgt. Pepper's hours (700 hours at Emerick's own calculation to be precise, as cited in Mark Lewisohn's The Complete Beatles Chronicle, p. 253). The majority of today's pop recordings represent a fundamental shift, according to Emerick, a shift "away from value in production towards value in marketing." Emerick links this to the dominance of the CD, which has meant that engineers have been "forced to trade artistic production value for commercial viability." Simultaneously, the dominance of digital technology has resulted, he maintains, in a "decline of sound," a "diminishment of the total range" of sound. All this, he feels, has contributed to the decline in the artistic function of the recording engineer. Artistic value, and hence, the creative role of the engineer, is all about as Emerick puts it "how to capture a performance ... a certain quality of a performance."

The centrality of tone colour in helping to express this "certain quality" on a recording demands precisely the kind of artistic priority Emerick's work with The Beatles so thoroughly and beautifully illustrates. It seems fair to say that the value of any technology in recording sound must be weighed against its ability to help artists, producer and engineer alike create, through sound, a full tonal and textural picture. It may be time to re-evaluate the digital emphasis, if the result is actually a narrowing of the full tonal range, a flattening of the multi-dimensionality of sound, leaving only a monochromatic palette from which to paint pictures in music.

"I still record in analog," Emerick was quick to add, "and we have assistants who will deal with all the digital stuff." His technical expertise and innovations, along with his intuitive creativity - all developed and perfected in the service of bringing sound to textural and visual life - have continued to expand in his most recent work with Sir Paul McCartney. Emerick reported that "all goes well" with Flaming Pie, which was then still in process. As we've seen with the wide range and beautifully textured sound of this album, Emerick and McCartney are still painting vivid musical pictures together.

Like The Beatles and Sir George Martin, Geoff Emerick has consistently pushed through the barriers of what was possible in recording, thus creating a new experience of music for all of us. He remains a complete Artist in his allegiance to the truth of music: that it resonate the fullness of human creativity, that it sing our deepest aspirations, and that it be a force for transformation. I couldn't help but notice the tuning fork pin Mr Emerick wore in his right lapel. Yes, I thought, like it, every sound he has helped to create still shines a pure gold.

*** Author's Note: Alexandra Burack is a Pushcart-Prize nominated poet and classically-trained singer who is old enough to have listened, entranced, to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the day of its original release. She works as a freelance writer/editor and a consultant in non-profit organisation management.

Direct questions to Cathy Munro

1997-2004 Lynn Harvey & MACCA-L™
All Rights Reserved