10 feats of musical engineering pioneered by The Beatles

When the 1960s rolled around, popular music began to change drastically. At the forefront of this period of rich musical innovation was The Beatles, who led the charge as new developments took place. Spearheading the British Invasion, the band, alongside the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, helped to revolutionise rock and roll.

While the Fab Four started their career writing simple love songs and covering rhythm and blues tunes, within a few years, they’d established themselves as critical innovators of popular music. With the help of producer George Martin and engineers like Ken Townsend, The Beatles pioneered new recording techniques which are now commonplace in the industry.

In some instances, The Beatles became the first people to use a specific recording method, such as artificial double tracking, which Townsend invented. Elsewhere, they brought avant-garde or rarely used techniques to the mainstream, often becoming the first musicians to use a certain method in popular music.

So, from their experiments with musique concrète to reversed guitars and vocals, here are ten feats of musical engineering that The Beatles pioneered.

The Beatles’ pioneering engineering feats:
Audio double tracking
Sound engineer Ken Townsend invented artificial double tracking (ADT) while working with The Beatles, coming up with the idea after hearing the sounds of cars. The band were in the midst of recording Revolver, and the need for double-tracking was an annoyance to John Lennon, who found the technique difficult to master.

Thus, Townsend came up with the idea of creating artificial double-tracking, copying the original vocal recording onto another tape whose speed could be manipulated. Therefore, Lennon no longer had to worry about recording vocals twice. Almost all of the songs on Revolver ended up using the artificial double-tracking technique.

Backwards vocal recordings

Similar to the band’s use of backwards guitar, The Beatles also utilised backwards voice recordings. With the song ‘Rain’, they became the first band to include reversed vocals in a pop song, which Martin claimed to have invented after messing around with the tapes. However, Lennon argued otherwise, with George Harrison and Geoff Emerick confirming the singer’s story to be correct.

He explained: “After we’d done the session on that particular song – it ended at about four or five in the morning – I went home with a tape to see what else you could do with it. And I was sort of very stoned and tired, you know, not knowing what I was doing, and I just happened to put it on my own tape recorder and it came out backwards. And I liked it better. So that’s how it happened.”

Close-miking strings

‘Eleanor Rigby’, yet another cut from Revolver, is one of the band’s most celebrated songs, with Paul McCartney taking an unusually bleak approach to the lyrics. To achieve the sound of the fast-paced strings, which give the song a dramatic flair, Emerick decided to place the microphones incredibly close to the strings of each instrument, practically touching them.

This was not commonplace at the time, causing the string musicians to find themselves “in horror”. Yet, nowadays, this is a relatively standard way of recording strings, aiding the ability to capture a richer sound. Thanks to Emerick, the strings on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sound fantastic, their fullness adding another dimension to the song.

Direct Input

The band, alongside Townsend, also helped to pioneer what is known as direct input or direct injection while recording bass on ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band’. According to Townsend, speaking via Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes, 1962-1970: “I think direct injection was probably used on Beatles sessions for the first time anywhere in the world. We built our own transformer boxes [DIT boxes] and plugged the guitars straight into the equipment.”

While the argument of who did it first suggests that several Motown sound engineers and a London-based producer called Joe Meeks beat them to it, The Beatles were one of the first people to bring the technique to the mainstream.

Guitar feedback

The Beatles were the first band to feature guitar feedback on a mainstream recording, using the now-popular technique on their 1964 single ‘I Feel Fine’. While American composer Robert Ashley had experimented with feedback the same year, The Beatles took a slightly different approach, producing the effect through John Lennon’s semi-acoustic picking up the sound of Paul McCartney’s bass after it was lent on an amplifier.

According to George Harrison, the band discovered the technique by accident, yet Lennon was so enamoured that he figured out how to replicate it for live performances. Subsequently, rock artists started to use feedback purposefully, and now it is a staple of many hit songs.

Half-speed recording

One of the greatest songs on Rubber Soul is undoubtedly ‘In My Life’, a tender cut written and sung by Lennon, which he dubbed his “first real major piece of work”. However, for the memorable piano solo, which occurs in the final third of the song, Martin had to get creative to master the ideal sound. However, upon finding the recording difficult, he decided that it would work better if the tape was run at half-speed. Subsequently, this allowed the piano to keep up without forcing Martin to play too fast.

Impressed with the unique sound this gave the instrument, much like a harpsichord, the technique was used by the band in other songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

Musique concrète

The band were early adopters of an avant-garde technique known as musique concrète that had previously been reserved for experimental musicians, particularly in countries like Germany and France. It emerged as a concept in the 1940s, with Pierre Schaeffer becoming the technique’s first pioneer. However, The Beatles became some of the first musicians to use musique concrète in popular music, utilising it in songs like ‘Revolution 9’.

The song is one of the band’s most divisive; after all, many people don’t consider it to be one, but rather, a sound collage. It was inspired by the work of artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Edgard Varèse, who frequently used the technique.

Reverse guitar

The recording of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ from Revolver resulted in the first instance of backward guitar appearing on a popular song. Sound engineer Geoff Emerick recalled, “I can still picture George hunched over his guitar for hours on end, headphones clamped on, brows furrowed in concentration.” By manipulating the guitar, Harrison was able to achieve an otherwordly sound that fit with the song’s lyrics.

The technique became popular in the ’60s with the advent of psychedelic rock, with Jimi Hendrix also using backward guitar in songs like ‘Castles Made of Sand’. Since then, it has also been used in tracks like T. Rex’s ‘Cosmic Dancer’ and The Who’s ‘Armenia City In the Sky’.

Sampling

The Fab Four were one of the first bands to bring sampling to popular music, beginning with their 1966 song ‘Yellow Submarine’ from Revolver. You only have to listen to a song like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ to understand how revolutionary The Beatles and Martin’s use of sampling was. The song contains samples of an orchestra recorded from a vinyl record, McCartney’s manipulated laughter, and other bizarre soundbites, which they transferred onto different loops which could all be played at once.

The result was a wholly innovative track, with Giles Martin explaining in a PBS documentary, “The actual mix of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is a performance; it can’t be recreated.” While the band didn’t strictly ‘invent’ sampling, they were one of its earliest pioneers.

Synchronised tape recording

Before SMPTE timecodes were used to synchronise tape machines, Townsend had to find his own way of doing so. He came up with the idea to synchronise two machines at once to make way for the orchestra that appears in ‘A Day In The Life’. The song, taken from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, remains one of the band’s most avant-garde pieces of music.

Thus, it was only natural for the production to include some innovation. Townsend used an external speed controller to control both machines. While his method didn’t always work, and SMPTE timecodes are now commonplace, the technique was incredibly creative and helped form one of the band’s most iconic songs.

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