Recording Abbey Road: The Beatles' First (and Last) Album of the Modern Era

EMI TG12345 photo by: Tim P. Whitby / Stringer. Getty Images.

More than any other single band in the '60s, The Beatles were known and celebrated for stretching the possibilities of the recording studio. The tape loops and automatic doubled-tracked vocals of "Tomorrow Never Knows," the reversed swirls heard first on "Rain," the Mellotron-drenched and pitch-shifted "Strawberry Fields Forever," and on and on. Such feats are all the more remarkable—and were, for producer George Martin and engineers like Geoff Emerick and Ken Townshend, all the more challenging—given the limited recording technology they pushed and overcame to capture the sonic experiments.

Back in the '60s, when Abbey Road Studios was still named EMI Studios, it boasted of its state-of-the-art gear. But the custom-built REDD.51 console The Beatles relied on for every record they made there until 1969's Abbey Road was, by that point, old tech. It had just eight mic inputs, two auxiliary inputs, and four outputs routed to four-track tape machines. The dense pop they created, whether psychedelic or symphonic or some mixture of the two, was a constant battle against the limitations of available equipment.

Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of The Beatles is a new book by Beatles historian and George Martin biographer Kenneth Womack that details just how much the studio's technological upgrades—mainly, the creation of the solid-state TG12345 console and use of eight-track tape machines—would change the sound of The Beatles' last group effort.

With an expanded console, a new-found dedication to stereo mixing, and the band's continued willingness to use new instrumentation, Abbey Road would sound like no other Beatles record before it. Each instrument was more defined, the bass and other low-end was tight and clear, and over everything was a high-end sparkle.

Below, we're taking a look at the gear behind that sound.

EMI's New Recording Console

EMI's TG12345 console was newly installed when The Beatles blocked off recording dates for the whole of July and August 1969 to make Abbey Road.

The 24-input, 8-output, solid-state deck was a long time coming. While the group had eight-track recorders for the last half of 1968's The Beatles, the separation of signals and channel-specific processing the TG12345 provided opened the door to more modern recording processes.

A close up of EMI's TG12345 at Abbey Road Studios. Photo by: Tim P. Whitby / Stringer. Getty Images.

To understand just how much of a difference this made, let's look at the limitations of the previous REDD.51 desk. As stated above, it had just eight mic inputs and four outputs, with the associated tape machines being limited to four-track recording. Once The Beatles began, in earnest, their mid-'60s studio experimentation, this resulted in technical drudgery for the engineers. Despite the limited tracks, they had to save space, mix and bounce previously recorded tracks to make room for new parts, or improvise hacks in more creative ways.

As Geoff Emerick explained previously in our article about the recording of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band:

"Basically the procedure would normally be to record bass, and drums, and guitar or piano. We usually replaced the bass part afterwards as an overdub, because at least with four tracks we had the luxury of putting the bass on a separate track. All the drums would go on one track—there were no stereo drums. Guitar and piano on one track. Then we would go back and maybe drop in guitar and piano parts all on the one track, and maybe even mix the guitar, piano, and drums to one track, which would give us three tracks, including one for the bass replacement overdub. The vocals would go on the fourth track."

For a song like Sgt. Pepper's "A Day in the Life," John, Paul, George, and Ringo had already maxed out the available four tracks before adding the orchestra. So George Martin and his team combined to two four-track recorders as best they could.

"Well, we didn't have any sync facilities in those days—they just didn't exist—so we had to do it purely and simply by guesswork," he told Tony Bacon. "That's why you can hear a little bit of bad ensemble… you can hear several versions of the orchestras slightly different from each other."

Just over two years later, the introduction of the TG12345 made such a process a thing of the past, at least until future artists began pushing the boundaries of eight tracks.

For the thick overdubbed guitars of Abbey Road's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," they simply kept adding. "They wanted a massive sound so they kept tracking and tracking, over and over," that session's engineer Jeff Jarratt said. Moments like that or the multi-mic'd drum solo of "The End" could be done with far less pain and hassle.

The Beatles - "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"

Kenneth Womack writes in Solid State: "There was no denying the technical leap that EMI's engineers had achieved with the console, which boasted three times the microphone inputs associated with the REDD.51, as well as built-in limiters/compressors on every channel. Quite suddenly, the possibilities of the recording studio had been expanded considerably."

In addition to built-in limiters/compressors, which were modeled off of Fairchild and Altec outboard gear, each channel also had more much useful EQ controls. As this MusicTech article explains, the previous REDD.51 console had just two EQ settings, one labeled "Pop," one "Classic," each with extraordinarily limited control over some cuts, boosts, or shelves.

The TG12345, on the other hand, had much better options: treble and bass controls on each individual channel, as well as more EQ available on grouped channels and the main outputs.

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EMI TG12345 Channel Strip
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However, the differences between the tube-based REDD.51 and solid-state TG12345 were more than the sum of their parts. The overall effect of the new board—with its separation, its transistorized components, and its versatility—was to give both a rounder and brighter sound to Abbey Road than previous Beatles recordings had.

Engineer Geoff Emerick didn't quite know what to make of it at the time. It's been well-documented that Emerick was not always the biggest fan of the new sound, saying "Personally, I preferred the punchier sound we had gotten out of the old tube console and four-track recorder. ... It seemed like a step backward." But in Solid State, he explains how that mellowness affected the recordings:

"With the luxury of eight tracks, each song was built up with layered overdubs, so the tonal quality of the backing track directly affected the sound we would craft for each overdub. Because the rhythm tracks were coming back off tape a little less forcefully, the overdubs—vocals, solos, and the like—were performed with less attitude. The end result was a kinder, gentler-sounding record—one that is sonically different from every other Beatles album."

Stereophonic Beatles

While Emerick wasn't pleased by the mellower playback, he did make great use of the new board's increased channels and stereo capabilities.

According to Solid State, when mic'ing the drums for Ringo's solo on "The End" (which still had the working title of "Ending" at this point in the process), "Emerick prepared for the July 23rd session for 'Ending' by placing a dozen microphones around Ringo's kit. The engineer also devoted two of the recording's eight available tracks—as opposed to a single track, as was their usual practice—in order to afford the solo with even greater prominence. In this way, Starr's solo for 'Ending' was the only time that his drums were recorded in true stereo."

The Beatles - "The End"

In the final mix of the track, you can hear the wide stereo image not only in the drums, but in the panning of the voices during the lines "Everybody's laughing / Everybody's happy," another benefit of the TG12345's superior stereo capabilities.

As close fans of The Beatles' records will know, the band and producer George Martin had, for most of their careers, preferred the mono mixes of their records. While those stereo mixes of Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper may have been how some listeners (particularly those in the US) first experienced them, they were often made as a quick afterthought. The new console's much greater panning controls, and the growing pro-stereo tastes of the public, put stereo sound at the forefront of Abbey Road.

As Womack writes, "By 1969, [Martin] was only too happy to follow the marketplace and turn his attentions to stereophonic sound. Besides, he appreciated the sonic possibilities that stereo promised in an age of evolving multitrack recording. And with the benefit of eight-track recording, he possessed the capacity for manipulating a much wider soundscape."

Martin himself later said, "One of the fascinating things I used to find was when you panned something from left to right, it didn't just go straight across, it goes up in an arc above you. It was like going through a proscenium arch in a theatre. And you could then see—very vividly in your mind—what the sounds were doing as a stereo picture."

Beatles' First Synth

1967's "Strawberry Fields Forever" had seen The Beatles using the Mellotron, a tape-based sampler, but the group put its first true synthesizer—a Moog Synthesizer IIIp—to tape on Abbey Road.

Before the sessions got underway, Harrison had purchased a modular system from Moog, having been duly impressed by a visit to California and a demonstration at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Harrison was still a relative novice by the time the group entered EMI Studios in the summer of '69, and Lennon and McCartney were experimenting with the Moog for the first time in the studio. Even still, it found its way on to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," "Here Comes the Sun," "Because," and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."

The Beatles with the Moog Synthesizer IIIp during the Abbey Road sessions. Photo from Moog.

The modular array included two keyboards, a ribbon controller, and a large collection of 901-Series oscillators, a 984 Matrix Mixer, and 905 Spring Reverbs. For The Beatles' first ventures, they kept their synth sounds relatively tame. McCartney used the ribbon controller to play a brassy, melodic lead on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," while Harrison used it to double Martin's harpsichord part on "Because."

On the coda of "I Want You," as the dense overdubbed guitars already competed for sonic space, Lennon introduced a scrawl of white noise to overtake the song.

Womack recounts the scene in Solid State: "Lennon offered careful instructions in order to ratchet up the intensity. 'Louder! Louder!' he implored Emerick during the mixing process. 'I want the track to build and build and build, and then I want the white noise to completely take over and blot out the music altogether.' With only 21 seconds remaining of the original recording, 'all of a sudden he barked out an order' to the Beatles' engineer, 'Cut the tape here!'"

While we looked at some of the most important new gear behind the sound of Abbey Road, you can read far more about the technology, the songwriting, and the group's in-fighting in Womack's brand-new Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of The Beatles. Special thanks to Womack and his team for giving us an early copy.

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