It's All About The Music 

Interview by Bruce J Mar

Authors Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew share their reflections and experiences with Bruce Maier about what has been heralded as the most definitive and accurate book ever written concerning the studio life, the methods and equipment used for the greatest band in the history of recording.  Forward with Bruce Maier In this span of time of about four and a half decades many of you like myself grew up to the sounds of various forms of rock and pop music. And, some of us living in the States were completely taken by the “ British Invasion “ which by most accounts was the responsibility of the four boys from Liverpool called The Beatles, to lead the peaceful attack of the American airwaves. When they stepped out on that stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York we would never be the same. Our parents really thought we had all lost our minds but soon realized that this was the way that they too had acted when Elvis or Sinatra led their own generations. We screamed so loud at the Beatle’s concerts that unfortunately, the live sound industry simply had not prepared for the decibel requirements that such an act would need to overcome. Soon, far too soon, the Beatles would decide to retire from public performance, rarely to be seen playing live ever again as a group. So it was that they concentrated on just writing great songs and making Abbey Road Studios in London their second home. Their music today sells as well as it did in 1967 and although John Lennon and George Harrison’s lives were cut tragically short, the words and melodies of the Beatles, The Fab Four, have been recorded by more artists than anyone else’s pop music in the history of the industry. The music in all it’s majesty and wonder could not have become what it has, were it not for the mixture of technology and equipment, the facilities in which this music was recorded, the supporting individuals who were everything from tape ops to engineers to producer George Martin, and even the “ tea girls “, the nameless ladies who made sure that the Abbey Road commissary was stocked with fresh English biscuits, jam and of course tea to keep the young lads filled and comfortable. There have been many books written about the Beatles and many perspectives and speculations. Until now there had never been such an accurate accounting of historical facts surrounding the process and the magic that was employed by not only the group but the entire team of professionals who brought the Beatle’s music to the world. Authors Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan spent years developing and creating the book for which this interview series will be about. We are grateful for their time and energy they put into this amazing, over five hundred pages in depth. The love and dedication to the arts is prevalent throughout this achievement, which is both a bible for tech-heads and producers, but also an insight into the hearts and minds of the five most amazing people to have ever worked in a studio together. Recording The Beatles is a must-have book for anyone who loves music but certainly the best reference ever of how it really happened. At the end of this interview we will provide all the links for purchasing your copy or further information. I recently made contact with Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan and they were gracious enough to give us a portion of their time, which you should understand, people around the world are thirsty for this knowledge and for the privilege of hearing Brian and Kevin speak about.

Kevin and Brian, on behalf of this publication and for historians , audio technicians and Beatles fans around the world, thank you for writing this masterpiece, Recording The Beatles. From the earliest point that either of you recall, how long did it take to conceive the idea and then hold a finished copy in your hands?

: Kevin and I started independently, so we have parallel stories. I do remember driving and listening to “Birthday” and wondering how they got the cool piano effect. And thinking it would be a great book to have the information of the Beatles’ recordings. That was 1991, so about 15 years later it was a real book.

KEVIN: I had been researching and gathering any information I could about the Beatles’ studio work for many years, but it didn’t occur to me that this subject would make a good book until the late 1990s. And when I did start working on it as a book, I thought it would take a year or two, tops. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Many years later, the book was finally done. It was a long, but very rewarding experience.

DGT: I understand that you both were working on similar book ideas yet never knew each other. How is it that you crossed paths and formed this unique partnership as co-authors of RTB

BRIAN: One of the most helpful Abbey Road technicians had interviewed with Kevin first. When I sought him out, he said “There’s this other guy who is doing the same thing as you.” I thought it really made sense to share this enormous workload, and I was worried another book might come out to compete, with both books being less-than-great. Combining forces seemed like the best idea!

KEVIN: Yes, this was one of the vital things that happened on this project. An undertaking of this magnitude definitely benefits from having two minds at work. We could bounce things off each other, keep each other in check, and motivate each other. Just as important was having someone there to celebrate with when key discoveries were made. We shared the joy of discovery, and I think if we hadn’t had each other, the whole experience would have been somewhat less enjoyable. The book itself certainly wouldn’t have been as good if we hadn’t done it together.

DGT: And if you would please, each tell our readers something about yourselves. Did you have backgrounds in the music industry or book writing and publishing businesses?

BRIAN: I’ve been working for years engineering and producing. All kinds of recordings, but mostly pop album work. I didn’t have any aspirations to write a book before, nor any involvement in the book-publishing world.

KEVIN: I’ve also been involved in studio work for many years, producing, arranging, engineering. And I’ve always enjoyed writing, as well. Writing a book was always on my future “to do” list, but I had assumed it would be a work of fiction.

DGT: When did you first travel to London to visit Abbey Road studios, and what were your first impressions?

: I think I went in 1993, but it wasn’t a serious project then. My girlfriend at the time knew someone at Abbey Road, and we were let in privately for a quick look. It was an amazing feeling there, to see that room which I had studied in so many photos.

: My first visit to the studio still feels a bit like a dream. Walking down the stairs for the first time, looking up at the control room, touching the pianos. It was a bit hard to believe I was actually there. I still remember the smell of the room. I’ve been back many times now, but I still get a brief burst of that initial feeling every time I walk through the door. The focal point is Studio Two, for obvious reasons, but Brian and I love learning everything we can about the entire studio complex. It’s such an amazing place.

DGT: According to your book, Abbey Road is quite an aged and elaborate facility of several buildings and many rooms, each of which was used for or contributed, to the creation of some of the world’s most famous music. Was there a “ vibe “, a feeling among the walls as you toured about the complex?

BRIAN: It has a vibe, for certain, but partly because it is now a very happening and active place. Some of the vibe is your knowledge of the history. Our book touches mainly on the ‘60s, but there could be a book on the 1930s at Abbey Road. Or the ‘80s. So much has gone on there. The Beatles is probably the main focus most people know or remember. And as some parts of it still have that original look, you instantly feel you “are there” as in the photos.

: It does have a vibe, and as I said before, it’s an amazing place. They’re still working on fantastic projects there every day. But I suspect you’re referring to something slightly more mystical, some sort of palpable sense of the music that has been recorded there-- ghosts of albums past. A lot of that kind of “vibe” probably depends on what you personally enter the place with. If you love Beatles music, or the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle album, or Pink Floyd, or the Hollies, and so on, then when you walk the halls, it is hallowed ground, and it can be momentarily overwhelming to think of what has been born there. And there are quite tangible links to the Beatles in things like the pianos. You can sit and play the same pianos the Beatles used. This is extraordinary. Your fingers are literally touching the same instruments played by the Beatles on those songs. But I also find that hanging out in the studio for a while helps to make the Beatles seem more human. After a few days there, you adjust to the room, and it becomes more of a space you are working in, rather than simply “the Beatles sanctuary”. And you begin to see the Beatles more as guys getting down to work, rather than the immortal iconic pop gods they have become. You begin to see the place as they did, which was as a workspace. In the largest of the studios, there were over 90 speakers placed throughout and the large cot-like cloth bags hanging everywhere. What are these for and please tell us what was used inside of them, which helped the sound of every record?
BRIAN: “Ambiophony” was the name of the system they built with all those speakers. The idea was to make the room seem more large or spacious by adding artificial echo. They took the sound the mics were picking up, added delays to that, and fed it back into the room – where it would again go into the mics. Tricky to run it without it feeding back, but it was a clever idea. Not too popular though.

: The padded material on the studio walls was called Cabot’s Quilt. These long cloth bags were actually stuffed with eelgrass, which is similar to seaweed. Cabot’s Quilt was used for insulation back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. EMI found it worked well for sound absorption as well, and they hung it on the walls to deaden the sound of the studio somewhat.

: You guys must have interviewed hundreds of people around the world gathering your information. What was it like interacting with the folks at Abbey Road? Specifically did they welcome you with open arms or were they guarded due to the fact that other authors and historians had become nuisances at times through the years?

BRIAN: I think most were open to it – but only once we’d established that we had done our homework. There were certainly times when we knew very little, and people were patient in “teaching” us. But we spent years researching history through photos and documents and details that many of them never knew. So often, we could trade information with them.

: Some people might have been slightly reluctant to talk at first. They are just tired of constantly being asked about the Beatles. But eventually they realized we weren’t always asking about the Beatles specifically as much as about the entire way the studio operated back in those days. This broader understanding was vital, and it was really how we uncovered so much of what we did. I think they appreciated that we were interested in the whole story, rather than just the details relevant to the Beatles. In reality, though, the Beatles used so much of the studio facilities that just about everything was relevant in some way.

DGT: There are so many photographs in your book, most of which the world had never seen before. How did you obtain these pictures and why were there so many taken around the studio while the Beatles were recording?

BRIAN: We are serious collectors of Beatles’ studio photos. I would venture to say we have seen all the known ones a normal Beatles fan would have seen, and we probably also know the photographer’s name and the date the photos were taken! We had great help from some of the serious Beatles photographers and photo collectors, and traded information with them to help them too. Beyond these “normal” photos, there are probably thousands of unseen Beatles photos. Once we discovered many of these, we really wanted the book to have photos never seen before. We do love studio photos from any vintage period, but especially Beatles working studio photos!

: Amazingly, there are still unseen photos of the Beatles out there. We were fortunate enough to uncover several for our book. Collecting and organizing photos was a vital part of our research process, as it allowed us to track the usage of equipment and techniques over time.

DGT: If we could, I’d like to shift a bit toward the technologies which were utilized in the early nineteen sixties at Abby Road; You show us photos of compressors and limiters, recording machines and desks, or “ mixers “ as we call them today. The common thread appears to me that everything was built extra heavy duty. Why is this and, is this the reason why those early records sounded so incredible?

BRIAN: Well, virtually anything built anywhere in the world was made this way – for serious use. American studios had heavy, strong gear. And this is reflected in the good-quality parts inside as well, it’s not just that old strong look. I think this is a good period for audio – they built things with a lot of simple but superb parts. The circuits were fairly straightforward, but this makes for a good HiFi sound. Not so much you can do to mess-up the sound! It was designed for HiFi classical recording most of the time, so pop music sounds pretty great with it.

: Yes, plastic hadn’t yet become a significant part of the equation yet. Everything was still built largely from metal, and it was built to last. It’s possible that this was somewhat influenced by the then not-too-distant past war. All of the EMI designers at the time would have served requisite stints in the military, and EMI certainly designed and constructed a great deal for the military. They were accustomed to making things strong and durable, because they had to be. But as Brian said, this was the way things were done in the world in general back then. I have some Ampex mixers from the 1950s that weigh a ton and still work flawlessly this many years later. But the modern mixer I bought brand-new three years ago currently has three dead channels. It’s partly because of how complex modern designs are and how much they can do. Something is bound to go wrong at some point. But the simple circuits found in the old equipment were strong and stable and offered less chance for things to go terribly wrong. Part of what our book covers is the very unique chain of equipment through which the Beatles were recorded. So much of it was proprietary or built just for EMI. When you link all of this equipment together, you get a specific kind of sound that other studios just didn’t have. You still had to send good music through that chain, but it was unique.

DGT: You reported that when the Beatles first had arrived at Abbey Road and all music was recorded monophonically, they would record “live“ as a band. Later when (Sir) George Martin got the twin track recorders, he would record the foundation or rhythm track and harmony vocals of the band onto one track , then record the lead vocals and say, tambourine parts onto the other track. What happened when Martin and the boys discovered the Studer 4-Track machines? How did that set a new precedent?

KEVIN: The Beatles were working in the standard pop technique by recording to mono. That’s all pop required at the time, and it was particularly doable with a group like the Beatles that could nail live recordings. We know from documentation that some other EMI pop artists were using four-track before the Beatles. Once the Beatles got it, it made their work faster, but they were still doing much of what they had been doing with the two-track machines.

BRIAN: I would mention that some music at Abbey Road was already recorded to stereo since about 1955, but not much pop. So for mono, the Beatles did use one or two-track machines to record more than one track, by bouncing from one machine to another. They got four tracks worth of sound by bouncing sometimes. So the Studer 4-track was not a huge change, just less work. Soon, though, just those four tracks was not enough….

DGT: I have been in and around studios my entire life and cannot imagine not having good headphones on when laying down a vocal or guitar part, yet you say that the Beatles did not use headphones for many years and most of their records. How then was it possible to isolate a vocalist or any other part for that matter, or reduce bleed through?

: Yes, for the first half of their career, they didn’t use headphones. This is so alien to modern record production, but it wasn’t too unheard of at the time. If they were overdubbing a vocal, they listened to the music playing from a big speaker in the studio and sang along. The mics were positioned for minimal bleed, and what bleed resulted wasn’t too much of a concern.

: They used to not worry so much about bleed-through of previous tracks as we do. It was there, but minimal. And they weren’t doing heavy processing, like crazy EQ or gating later on, where the bleed would be noticeable. There is a thing I find in studios – if you sing or play without headphones – that you actually do better, because that is the way you are used to performing. It’s natural to hear things in open spaces.

DGT: Why was it necessary to use so many different types of microphones while recording the Beatles? How do they differentiate from one another?

KEVIN: EMI had determined which mics were generally best on which sources. For instance, the Beatles almost always recorded their vocals through one kind of Neumann microphone. It is an exceptional mic and still highly sought after today. They almost never used anything else. And certain mics were identified as working well on guitar, or piano, or bass. The Beatles and their engineers experimented to an extent sometimes with other microphone choices, but it was simply understood that certain mics were better on some sources than others.

: And while there were not so many mics compared to today’s studios, they were of excellent quality. This is one of the secrets of good recordings – the one good microphone can be more important than 10 poor ones.

DGT: Tell us about some of the technical tricks that Martin and some of the other Abbey Road Engineers and technicians used like varying tape speeds or synchronizing two machines together with a tone.

BRIAN: Varying tape speeds is something that seems kind of simple to us now. Back then, it was almost a total no-no, because the studios had spent so much time making sure the tape machines ran perfectly on-speed. But George Martin liked a trick that was easily done with most tape recorders anyway – half-speed recording; most machines had two speeds – one for hi-fidelity, and one at half speed for longer recording time but lower sound quality. George would sometimes put the machine in the slow-speed mode, and then record an overdub, like the guitar and piano solo on “A Hard Day’s Night”. Then playing that back at the normal high-speed, it would sound speeded up, but an octave higher – in tune with the normal instruments. It’s not so obvious on these things that it’s running at double speed, yet it’s there if you listen. Check out the solo sections on “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “In My Life” – those are all double-speed recordings.

: Yes, that’s one of the big techniques no one thinks of anymore -- varying the tape speed. The Beatles used it so much to slightly alter the sounds of their instruments and voices. Certainly, the half-speed approach is something people could easily still do today on their computers, but I never see anyone doing it. Or parts could be overdubbed at 44.1 kHz and played back at 48 kHz for a less drastic change. The potential is still there. You mentioned syncing two tape machines. It was innovative, but not actually used much on Beatles songs. The idea was that a recorded tone played back from one tape machine could be boosted by an amplifier and used to power another tape machine. The second tape machine would be “tricked” into thinking the amplified tone was actually the mains power. So, when the first machine started playing, the second machine would play back at the same time. The hope was that two machines could be synced together for recording and playback. Brilliant idea, but it didn’t always work right. It was a bit ahead of its time.


Brian and Kevin, I want to thank you both for giving your time for this interview. Our magazine represents a cross-section of individuals from all walks of life who are obviously involved in being an Independent Artist or at least interested in the industry. It’s important that each of us no matter how small our label or little known our act may be to understand what it takes to improve or even achieve greatness. After all, the Beatles Were once an “ indie “ band ! Part two of our series I’d like to ask you more of the depth of processes recording the Beatles, the advances of equipment and especially more about John, Paul, George and Ringo, and how they pushed the envelope and helped everyone at Abbey Road to evolve.

BRIAN: “Indie” is an idea we love too. Our two books are self-published; made in smaller quantities for the people who like the Beatles and want work of a high quality. It’s a smaller market, but an active and avid one.

: Yes, there’s a strong correlation between the world of indie music and the world of indie book publishing. We chose to become an independent publisher because we could maintain control over the product and make exactly what we wanted to make. We didn’t have to compromise on anything. And yet we feel our book stands up to any major publisher’s book in terms of quality and scope and care. Indie doesn’t have to be synonymous with inferior. I find, in fact, that in many cases the indie scene is producing superior product because more of it is done out of love rather than out of concern for the bottom line.


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