RE/P Files: An Interview With George Martin At A.I.R. Studio In London
A true legend talks about the creative process, technology, the Beatles and more...
May 09, 2014, by Wiliam Wolf
From the archives of the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, enjoy this in-depth discussion with legendary producer George Martin at A.I.R. Studio London, conducted by William Wolf. This article dates back to the January/February 1971 issue.
William Wolf: What do the letters “A. I. R.” stand for?
George Martin: Associated Independent Recordings.
WW: Has A.I.R. done any independent production locating the talent, etc. as yet?
GM: Yes, but not much. We left our respective companies just over five years ago—three of us left EMI and one left Decca—and we had to do a deal with EMI which lasted five years; in fact, it ended about a month ago.
This was basically an independent deal but it also covered the servicing of artists that were contracted to the company anyway. Obviously the Beatles came under that, and other artists that we handled—there were quite a few. So we had to maintain those artists and so our time for finding other artists was obviously limited.
But at the same time, as the years went by it became more and more difficult to get new artists not because they weren’t there but because the deal that we had with EMI was limited to an overall royalty which gradually became—well, in fact, very quickly became out of date. So that by the time the contract ended we couldn’t possibly hope to secure any artists because we couldn’t offer them any money. We were bound by that and we couldn’t do anything about it.
Now that we’re free we can really look around—sniff the air—which is what we intend to do. But we decided, in fact, before we did that, to build a studio.
WW: Several of the studios I’ve visited in England are equipped, as is A.I.R., to handle visual material as well as audio. Do you feel that there is a potential in integrating the pop music field with visual technology ?
GM: Actually there aren’t all that many studios here that also do visuals. There are far more—fewer sound ones. But the tendency is, of course, to open up the visual side—mainly because, I think, this is inevitably the future. You’re bound to have video recordings; they’re on our doorstep.
WW: What are your feelings about four-channel sound?
GM: We haven’t built it into our boards mainly because it’s a very new development and most people in this country don’t know anything about it. We know about it because we go to your country. I honestly don’t believe it’s a very important development. It’s quite nice, it’s pleasant, it’s a very nice gimmick, but I can not imagine the average person going to the elaboration of fixing up four speakers in their room so that they can hear the ambiance of the concert hall behind them…
You could have circular sound, of course, but when I was introduced to quadrasonic sound, my comment was that if you’re using four speakers the ideal is not one in each corner of the room, but it is three in an equilateral triangle below you and one above you so that you’re in the center of a tetrahedron. Then you’ve really got all-around sound, in all manners—you’ve got up and down as well.
But this is being idealistic and I really don’t think it’s for the average man. It’s very nice, but I can’t imagine Mrs. Jones of Wiggum or in your case Mrs. Bloomfield of Connecticut taking the trouble of fixing up her drawing room or ... whatever you call it ... the lounge with four speakers.
WW: Is there stereo radio transmission in England?
GM: Yes, there is, but it’s very limited. It’s third program stuff; that is, you get classical concerts occasionally broadcast in stereo and occasionally you get stereo record broadcasts. I should think the number of people in England who listen to it is about .001 percent. And also, people don’t listen to radio much anyway. The average man in this country is glued to the television set.
WW: Would you describe what you feel the responsibilities of the producer are on a “rock” date?
GM: Yes. I’m glad you defined that because a producer’s responsibilities do vary an awful lot. For a rock date I think he’s got to get to know the group musically and obviously psychologically he’s got to know the people. He’s got to get into their minds and he’s got to try to find out what they’re trying to express and if he can find out, it’s then his job to realize it in terms of sound. So, his function is not to impose his will upon the group and produce his sound using the group as his puppet, but more to draw out from the group the best sound he can possibly get, and get them to play the best possible music.
WW: Then you feel that sound, as well as music, is a major responsibility of the producer?
GM: Yes. That’s the way I see it. It’s also psychological. I think you’ve got to learn how to get the best out of people find out when they’re going past it and so on.
WW: How would these responsibilities vary for a classical music session?
GM: Well yes, they vary enormously. To begin with, in the classical session, unless it’s chamber music, you’ve only really got one person’s ideas to deal with, and that’s the conductor; and then, from the amount of classical recordings that seem to take place today, it’s more a question of the diplomatic handling of that conductor and trying to get the best out of him rather than the technical details of a good sound.
The classical producers of today, and I’m not calling myself a classical producer, seem to leave everything to the engineer and just act like a kind of ... what shall I say ... host to the conductor. I don’t think they interfere too much musically, which I think is a pity. I think that classical music could be in fact improved by adapting certain pop techniques to it. I wouldn’t mind having a go at recording something classical in a different way.
WW: Would you, for example, use close miking?
GM: Yes. Most classical records are made like photographs of concerts, if you know what I mean—aurally speaking. The ultimate aim is to reproduce as naturally as possible the sounds of the orchestra as created in the concert hall.
Now I think this is terribly limiting. I mean it’s been done, and it continues to be done better and better because engineers and acoustics and recording techniques have advanced enormously. But I think we’re missing out on something. I think that if Beethoven or Bach were alive today, they would call that a very timid approach, and I think they would go back to first base and say, “You’ve got tremendous tools here; let’s use them.” And I think if you go back to the actual music and adopt, really, very modern recording techniques and produce a work of art which is different from what you hear in the concert hall, and not necessarily inferior which most people might think.
WW: Then the rock producer presently has more room for creativity?
GM: Unquestionably. That’s what appeals to me.
WW: (Before A.I.R. Studios were built) Your responsibilities also include selection of the studio and engineer?
WW: In recording a rock group, will you attempt to capture a “live” studio performance, or will you construct a recording using, for example, overdubbing.
GM: I’m afraid the latter is true. One doesn’t go for a performance as such in the studio because you know darn well that if you do that there are going to be shortcomings in various other departments. You might get a great vocal performance, and the bass line may not be so great. So, there are various things that you can do-you can go and overdub the bass line if you’ve got good enough separation.
You’ve seen us working recently ... what I was trying to do yesterday, in fact, with Peter, with the whole group, was to try to concentrate on Peter’s performance tying to get something out of him, and then worrying about the rest of it.
But in fact we’ve reversed the process today because we’ve decided that Peter will probably do as good a performance by overdubbing anyway. So we’re going back to first base and concentrating on the actual sound. It doesn’t seem to impair the total result. Most rock recording is done that way today. You obviously get a much better sound on everything; you are able to pay much more attention to detail.
WW: You mentioned before the importance of psychologically understanding the group. Could you be more specific?
GM: It’s just instinct really a kind of sixth sense you build up. You’ve got to get to know people and sense what’s happening.
WW: Would you say that a sense of humor is important?
GM: Oh yes, a sense of humor is terribly important. Absolutely. If you didn’t have a sense of humor on rock dates, then everybody would go sour. I can’t bear people who take themselves loo seriously, including rock musicians.
WW: Do you find that you do a lot of producing during the mix down stage as well as during the recording stage?
GM: It depends on the artist and the record you’re making, and what techniques you’re using. If you’re making a record like Sgt. Pepper, for example, the mixdown is just as complicated, in fact more so, than the original recording because you’re painting a picture in sound and you’re using extra things: you’re bringing in sound effects, you’re distorting sounds, you’re playing with them, you’re soil of shaping them-sculpting them, if you like—and mixing them down at the same time.
So that kind of production is probably more complicated and more important in the mixing stage than at any other time. But if you did that all your life, you’d be spending all your time mixing and none of it recording.
WW: Then it varies greatly from group to group?
GM: Very greatly, yes.
WW: When mixing down, do you physically operate the console, or do you direct an engineer?
GM: Like most producers I like to get my hands on the controls, and it’s wrong. Sometimes I do—sometimes you have to—because sometimes the mixes are so complicated that one pair of hands won’t work. In fact, on many Beatles mixes, we would have the engineer sitting in the middle, me sitting on the right, and one of the guys on the left.
It depends whose song it was—it might be Paul or John or George. And we would all be playing with the faders, the three of us; we would actually be playing a sort of triple concerto. But the snag with that is that you still need someone else to listen because when I’m controlling the controls on a mix, I’m listening for certain things that I’m controlling and I don’t have that essential requirement of being able to listen to the whole thing with absolute impartiality.
So nowadays I tend to get out of that scene and say, “This is wrong. You shouldn’t be handling the controls. You should be standing back and telling people what to do, and listening to the whole thing.” It’s only by being free that you can really see the whole picture.
George Martin and engineer Bill Price
WW: What qualities do you look for when selecting an engineer?
GM: Oh, that’s a big question. First of all, he’s got to be an enthusiastic engineer. I’m very fortunate with Bill (Price); he really is a dedicated engineer. He must be keen on his job, keen on sound, and preferably—and there will be many people who will quarrel with this—preferably without the ambition to be a record producer, because I think that gets in the way of good engineering.
WW: Why is that?
GM: Well, there are an awful lot of engineers who become record producers, which is fine; I’ve got no gripes against that. But I don’t think you can do two jobs at the same time. And there’s always the transition period when the engineer tries to do a bit of production, or goes back to doing a bit of engineering after he’s been a producer. And I think that they lose out because of that. They are two separate jobs and they need detached minds.
WW: Anything else?
GM: He’s got to be good at his job; he’s got to know a lot about recording—that goes without saying. He’s got to know the board, and he’s got to have a good ear. He’s got to have a personality where, without being servile, he makes it plain that he is there, in fact, to serve the group.
He doesn’t have to be a humble person. On the contrary, he must be a person of some authority and some spirit; but he must always give that impression, that he is there to get the best sounds out of people, just as the producer should give that effect.
WW: So you don’t care if the engineer has a musical background?
GM: No, not really; not personally because that should be the job of the producer.
WW: What kind of language do you use to communicate with your engineer? You mentioned to me before that you were non-technical, therefore / assume that you do not communicate in technical terms.
GM: Well, in fact, I do. I’m non-technical, but I still say to him, “I think we need a bit of top at 4,000 (Hz) on that, or try it a little lower down.” When I say I’m not technical, I mean I haven’t any technical training. But you can’t grow up in the recording industry, and go from mono recording through stereo and multi-track, working all the time on boards, without picking up a little knowledge.
WW: Then you feel that the producer should be able to operate the console himself—at least in his head?
GM: I think it helps—anything that gives a greater understanding between people. I think that if my engineer knows that I know what’s going on, then he will respect me more and he’ll work more closely with me. If I don’t know what I’m talking about and I ask him for something that is patently impossible, I’ll lose his respect, and he won’t work so well with me.
WW: Do you prefer to work straight through with one engineer?
GM: I prefer to work with one engineer for a particular job, but I don’t want to work with that engineer all my life.
WW: Many Beatles recordings employ techniques or tricks such as phasing very tastefully. Did the ideas for these techniques come from engineers? Or, to put it another way, do you encourage your engineers to make suggestions?
GM: I certainly would encourage engineers to make suggestions. But in fact, all the techniques we used that you’ve described have come about not because the engineers made suggestions, but because we actually asked for particular sounds.
Phasing came about as a result of experimenting with the automatic double tracking, ADT, which was, in fact, suggested by an engineer, who strangely enough wasn’t a balancing engineer. He was a backroom boy who came forward with this idea. He was an EMI bloke; he’s now in fact running EMI studios, which is nice. And so phasing came about as a result of that—playing with ADT. In most other cases they’ve been a result of personal experimentation in the studio. My experience with spoken word recordings—building up sound pictures without music was invaluable in that respect.
WW: Are there any special considerations that you keep in mind when producing a 45 RPM single release?
GM: Obviously it’s got to be a little more concise than an album track. There are a lot of things which you put on an album, which stand up on an album because they are part of a long scene, which obviously wouldn’t mean anything on a single. In any case, you are making records to a certain extent for a particular market. One is well aware of the nature of the music that is played on the top 100 in the “states”, so you’re obviously thinking of that when you select your single.
WW: Is there any instrument, or instruments, that you consider particularly important, especially with regard to singles?
GM: No, I don’t honestly consider any one thing to be particularly important—I think they’re all important. When I’m doing a recording of a rock group, I do actually, mentally, go through every sound that I’m hearing, saying, “Is that the right sound?” I apply the same devotion to each one. If you miss out on one, you’re not doing your job.
WW: Is it true that the early Beatles records were remixed by Capitol for release in the states?
GM: They weren’t remixed by Capitol; they might have been re-equalized by Capitol. Yes, in fact, I’m sure they were. The story was in those days that American record players were different from English record players, and therefore they had to cut their own masters to suit their own tastes. And they did that; and I didn’t like the results, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
WW: Could you describe the differences in sound between the American and British releases?
GM: I didn’t think they (U.S. releases) were as good. It’s difficult to get a good answer to that one because I was hearing their records on my machine and I don’t know what they would have sounded like if I had heard them on their machines. They may have been alright, but they generally sounded much thinner and harsher than our sound, and less bass certainly.
WW: Early Beatles records were characterized by a particular vocal sound which has been very influential on pop music in general. How did this come about?
GM: Because we had particular kinds of vocalists, really.
WW: You mentioned ADT.
GM: That was a particular sound we put on. You know, once we got over the first hurdle of being a success, they were always looking for something new. They were continually coming to me and saying, “Do something different.”
They were always prodding and trying to push some things out a bit further. John hated the sound of his own voice, which I personally thought was a great voice, and quite often he would come to me and say, “Can’t you do something with my voice; it sounds terrible.” He’d say “I know it is terrible, but let’s do something about it. Don’t make it sound like me,” which was worrying in a way because he expected magic.
I don’t know quite what he was expecting to hear, but it wasn’t what he was producing and consequently we did play about with the voices quite a bit. Sometimes, I think the results weren’t very good, but in a lot of cases they were.
WW: Is it true that Sgt. Pepper was recorded on four-track machines?
GM: Yes, absolutely true. It was done four to four.
WW: Who did the engineering on Sgt. Pepper?
GM: Geoff Emerick, I think he did all of it.
WW: What other Beatles records has he worked on?
GM: I couldn’t give you a catalog—there are quite a few. When we started out, the engineer we had was a guy by the name of Norman Smith. I can’t give you which record he stopped on, but we could find that out easily the facts arc there.
But he came to me one day and said he wanted to be a producer… he was an EMI engineer. . . and did I mind. And I said, “No, fine. Off you go.” He said, “The only thing is, I want to go on engineering the Beatles.” And I said, “Well, now, I don’t think you can do that.” I was very firm, but quite polite, and I said, “If you want to be a producer, that’s one thing and that’s fine. Go and make some good records. I’m sure you can, but I don’t think you can go on engineering at the same time,” which comes back to your previous question.
So he made the plunge and he left and became a producer, and he’s done some extremely good stuff. He made all of the Pink Floyd’s early records. He’s now a staff producer for EMI. But then I had to find another engineer.
Now there were lots of engineers senior to him at EMI, but I decided at that time that I wanted someone very new and young. I’d been looking around—looking for talent, so to speak, and I decided to give the chance to Geoff Emerick, who in fact had done very little recording before. He’d been balancing for six or nine months before I gave him the job with the Beatles. He jumped at that and it was really tossing him over the deep end; but he was marvelous—he came out with colors flying. And after Geoff we used other people as well, but in fact, we brought Geoff back for Abbey Road.
WW: He didn’t, then, work on the Beatles white album?
GM: No, he didn’t.
WW: Would you describe some of the techniques used on Sgt. Pepper, for example on “For The Benefit of Mister Kite”?
GM: That’s really quite simple when you know about it. John wanted a calliope kind of sound. He wanted to get the impression of a fair ground and he played me this song that he’d written, and asked what I could think up to give it that kind of fair ground atmosphere.
And I thought a lot about it, and I decided the best way to do it was to use some of the techniques I’d done with spoken word records. I decided that to get the kind of swooping, steam organ noise he wanted, I got him on one Hammond organ and me on another; actually I think he was on a Lowry and I was on a Hammond.
And we recorded some half speed organ, and I did some chromatic runs with the tremelo on fairly fast over two octaves and then sped them up to double speed. That was one of the things—the swooping noises. But for the background mush, I got lots of steam organ tapes, genuine fair ground organ recordings of all sorts of pieces of music—“Stars and Stripes Forever” and those kinds of things—and cut them into short lengths (of tape) and threw them up in the air, literally, and just told the engineer to pick them up again and join them all together. He thought I was mad.
We played it and of course the result was very cacaphonic. We used that as just a general background, mingling mush, which gave the required effect ... all kinds of funny jumping—some of it was backwards—but it worked.
WW: Beatles records are also characterized by constructive use of echo effects. Do you pay particular attention to echo on your recordings?
GM: The right kind of echo, yes. There’s a tendency these days to use plates an awful lot, in fact exclusively. We have plates here but we also have an echo chamber, which I must confess I haven’t used a great deal yet. But I believe that a good chamber can beat a plate any day. I used chamber mainly on Beatles records.
Actually, we used a combination of chamber and tape, which we called “steed”—I don’t know why we called it “steed”—but it was basically sending the delayed signal by means of tape into the chamber.
WW: Why weren’t any of the engineering teams credited until Abbey Road?
GM: EMI policy, and they didn’t like it even then. (Abbey Road)
WW: Beatles records, especially since Sgt. Pepper, have caused a rekindling of interest in the electric bass. Was bass a particular problem in recording the Beatles?
GM: Paul was always worrying me to get more bass on the records, certainly, and it was my job to try and get that bass on, true. Probably it was the single most worrying factor, of any sound that we produced, because Paul is a perfectionist and even when we got a great bass sound he didn’t think it was very good. Now, you say that we got some great bass sounds, which is nice to know. I’d like you to relay that information to Paul.
WW: I’d be glad to.
WW: Could you describe a technique you used on the bass on Abbey Road, say, for example, “Come Together”?
GM: I think on that particular one we used a combination of direct injection and live sound.
WW: And limiting/compression?
GM: Yes, of course, and also a little bit of echo too. But each sound is treated on its own merits. That’s why we, in fact, got lots of varied sounds, some of which were not so good as others.
WW: The instruments and voices on Abbey Road have a particular clarity and presence that seem to be derived from close-miking or similar techniques. Was directed it in the studio. Everything else was mine. this your aim?
GM: I was aiming for clarity, but oddly enough, it isn’t very necessarily close-mike techniques that provide this. This essence of that clarity that you talk about is the ability to differentiate one sound that is interfering with your bass, for example, then you do something about it. You change it. And I think the clarity comes from having distinguishable sounds anyway.
WW: Then from a production standpoint, if you’re going to have two sounds in the same frequency range, they should be playing approximately the same part, or else they will muddle each other?
GM: That’s right.
WW: Did you do all the horn and string arrangements for the Beatles?
WW: Yes, with one exception. Oh, I certainly didn’t do the “Let It Be” one, which Phil Specter did. I was quick to disown that. There was one exception; it was one of the string ones, which an English arrange did. He gave us the score because I wasn’t around at the time and Paul wanted it done very quickly. Mike Leander it was on one title. He gave us the score and I directed it in the studio. Everything else was mine.
WW: Do you think that you’ll work with the Beatles again, or any of he Beatles?
GM: In the answer to the first question, I think it’s possible if the Beatles ever work together again. As to the individual Beatles, I don’t know. Each one of them is very talented, two of them in particular, in fact George, John, and Paul are obviously more talented than Ringo.
All four of them are very talented anyway, but none of them is as strong as the four of them together. The four individual parts were not as great as the entire whole. The Beatles, four people together, did something that nobody else had ever done before, and the fact that they’re not together I think is a very sad thing.
Editor’s Note: This is a series of articles from Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, which began publishing in 1970 under the direction of Publisher/Editor Martin Gallay. After a great run, RE/P ceased publishing in the early 1990s, yet its content is still much revered in the professional audio community. RE/P also published the first issues of Live Sound International magazine as a quarterly supplement, beginning in the late 1980s, and LSI has grown to a monthly publication that continues to thrive to this day.
Take the PSW Photo Gallery Tour of audio equipment ads appearing in RE/P magazine, circa 1970.
Our sincere thanks to Mark Gander of JBL Professional for his considerable support on this archive project.
RE/P Files: An Interview With George Martin At A.I.R. Studio In London