by Clive Young.
More words have been written about the Beatles than any other band; every nook and cranny of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s private and professional lives has been explored by writers, but until recently, one area remained surprisingly unexamined: the actual recording of the Fab Four’s classic albums. That problem is rectified by Recording The Beatles, a spare-no-expense, 500-page, 11 lbs. book, housed in a deluxe re-creation of a vintage tape box.
Authors Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew were fascinated by the scraps of recording information that seeped out of Abbey Road Studios, but technical information was always scant. As a result, in the late 1990s, the writers began researching the nuts-and-bolts gear info, studio war stories and more by poring over old photos, finding lost EMI paperwork and interviewing retired engineers who worked with the band back in the day, but it was no simple feat excavating information about vintage recording gear used decades earlier in another country (both authors are from the U.S.).
“The Holy Grail was to find out about the REDD 51 console used in Studio 2,” said Ryan. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there–that the REDD 37 console was ‘the Beatles console,’ that Lenny Kravitz owned it and it was used to record Sgt. Pepper. We found out the REDD 37 was the least-used console, and Kravitz’s one was from Studio 1, which the Beatles rarely recorded in. It certainly wasn’t the Sgt. Pepper console; that was the REDD 51 desk which no one really knew about–this elusive, mysterious thing.
“About a year before going to press, we were at one of the engineer’s houses and the phone rang. He answered it, got a funny look on his face and said ‘A REDD 51?’ Brian and I, our ears perked up–a REDD 51 had been found in Italy; Mark Knopfler bought it and we got to document it. I honestly never thought one would turn up–and there’s still two more floating around out there, unless they’ve been destroyed.”
Finding the desk provided insight into how the Beatles’s songs were mixed. Set up for classical recording, the desk could record a stereo pair on tracks 1 and 2, and then on tracks 3 and 4, either another stereo pair or two soloists. Said Ryan, “The tape returns into 1 and 2 were hard-panned left and right, and the returns for 3 and 4 were hard-panned left and right with a control that allowed you to bring tracks 3 and 4 together in the middle. In 95 percent of their songs, drums are always on the left in the stereo mixes, even in their most psychedelic period. We realized the drums were always track 1, guitars were always recorded on track 2, and 3 and 4 were for vocals–so the songs are mixed the way they are because of the layout of the desk. If you hear a stereo mix where the drums are on the right, then they were bounced down to track 2. It was a long, obsessive, nerdy process piecing all this together.”
That effort was aided by the fact that both authors, as working engineers, did sessions at Abbey Road–visits that became opportunities to research, albeit covertly (“You can’t walk up and say ‘we’d like to see your secret files;’ that doesn’t really work”). Most elusive was an Altec compressor used throughout the band’s recordings; seen in photos, it didn’t appear to be a production model, and the engineers could only recall that it was gray.
“We befriended a guy there, and one day we asked about some obscure part of a mixer. He said, ‘I think I have one upstairs.’ When he unlocked the cabinet, it was one of those moments where the whole course of our research changed–tons of stuff we’d been looking for was stuck away in this cabinet. No one knew it was there! No one knew its value or what it had been used on; we were just freaking out! We saw the Altecs and said ‘We’d like to try them while we’re here.’ He got one working for the first time in 40 years–and it was amazing with anything you put it on.”
The book is full of stories, anecdotes and extensive gear reportage, as well as diagrams, vintage snapshots culled from engineers’ photo albums, and even a poster of the REDD 51’s control surface. All that makes for an expensive–and self-published–tome, but despite the economy, the $100 price tag and their decision to not sell it through major retailers (“they take too deep a cut for a project like this”), the book is about to enter its sixth printing. While it has an appeal to die-hard Beatles fans, Ryan suspects the book is reaching another audience as well.
“I think we’re benefiting hugely from home recording,” he said, “because more people than ever before know what a condenser microphone is. You have guys in their home studios with gear that only a pro would’ve had 15 years ago. They’re interested in recording techniques, and some probably want to emulate Beatles sounds, but a lot of them are interested in how it was done. You can learn something in the book that will make you approach what you do in a different way, without copying the Beatles.
“As you can imagine, we’ve also sold a lot of books to recording studios that have it for clients to look at while they’re passing time. People get hooked on it while they’re just waiting for a million takes to happen–and then they buy one, too.”
Recording The Beatles