Early recording techniques: The Mid 1960s and Abbey Road

by Bill on July 28, 2009

We didn’t always use Cubase and GarageBand for recording our sounds, and studios weren’t always equipped with Pro Tools HD and banks of expensive processing gear. Graeme takes a look at how things worked back in the sixties…

In the mid 1960s a four-track tape machine would typically be used for recording. This meant many parts had to occupy one track, and when it came to the stereo mix they could not be separated, resulting in multiple parts being panned to the same place.

No rules had yet been defined for mixing in stereo, so what would seem like odd decisions today were made in the name of experimentation. For example, in The Beatles song Taxman from 1966 the drums are panned entirely to the left. Such techniques, although unconventional today, were a defining feature of mid-1960s recordings and of the birth of stereo.

1960s Recording Equipment
As the first digitally recorded commercial record was not released until 1977, all the recording equipment in the mid 1960s would have been analogue. Abbey Road made use of a four-track tape recorder during this period - the Studer J37.

Studer J31 four track tape recorder

Studer J37 four track tape recorder

George Martin, producer for The Beatles, actually believed that the limitations of the four-track stimulated creativity and that the 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band would not have been as good if recorded on a 24-track. The J37 is somewhat of a legendary machine these days.

The four-track did not however limit the record to four different parts. By using a multi-channel mixer several parts could be recorded to one channel. This however meant that any processing such as equalisation and compression would have to be applied during recording, as the tracks could not be separated once recorded. This yielded a far narrower margin for error than is available with modern digital recording. The desired sound and volume level would have to be achieved before the track was recorded, meaning a very thorough sound check was required. The main console in place at Abbey Road in the first half of the 1960s was designed and built by EMI, and is shown below.

1960s EMI console, Abbey Road

1960s EMI console, Abbey Road

It essentially contained two 5-channel mixers, a valve equalisation section and effects sends. This allowed for multiple channels to be sent to one track of the Studer, with equalisation and other effects added on the way in.

Microphones were predominantly large diaphragm condensers. Valve powered condensers such as Neumann U47s and U67s were commonly used for vocals by the engineers at Abbey Road. Indeed there are still 15 U67s at the studio in use today. Ribbon microphones such as the STC4038 (now manufactured by Coles) were often used on drums, along with AKG 56 and 54 condenser microphones.

Both the Studer four-track and the console, and in fact all amplifying equipment of the time, made use of valves rather than transistors in their amplifying circuits. This was a major factor in the final sound of the recordings. Valves could handle higher signal levels than transistors, and when they distorted it was across their entire frequency range, unlike the hissy, undesirable distortion that occurs when transistors are overdriven. They are generally associated with a ‘warm’ tone.

Guitar amplifiers of the time relied on valves for their clean tones and warm distortion. The Beatles, and in fact most artists of the time, favoured the Vox AC30 as their guitar amplifier. One feature of the AC30 was its built in valve-driven tremolo effect. This became a feature of a huge range of records at the time, and is an effect highly associated with 1950s and 60s guitar recordings.

In the early to mid-1960s the predominant drum recording technique was the Glyn Johns technique. This involved three microphones: one overhead, one to the side and one on the kick. The overhead would be approximately a metre above the snare and the side microphone would be the same distance away from snare to the side near the floor tom, level with the snare. The kick microphone would be approximately a foot away from the kick drum. The microphones themselves were most often condenser microphones, with the occasional use of a dynamic microphone on the kick. Drums were also often dampened. The Beatles tended to attach tea towels to the snare drum and toms, giving their distinctly sharp, none-resonant sound.

Guitar microphone positioning techniques were relatively basic while four-track machines were still in use. As can be seen in the picture below, during a 1964 Beatles recording session at Abbey Road a condenser microphone is placed about half a foot away from the speaker, facing directly toward the cone.

Beatles session, Abbey Road

Beatles session, Abbey Road

Piano techniques depended on the type of piano that was being used. Geoff Emerick (The Beatles’ engineer) used two AKG D19 dynamic microphones for recording an upright piano. Condenser microphones tended to be used with grand pianos in order to capture more ambience of the instrument. This was because the powered condenser microphones had wider frequency responses and could record larger sound fields, thus producing a more detailed recording.

Strings were almost exclusively recorded using ambient condenser microphones. Close microphone techniques were experimented with in the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s recording sessions but this was unconventional.

Effects processing included equalisation and compression. The Fairchild compressor was used frequently at Abbey Road throughout the 1960s. Its applications ranged from basic compression to limit the dynamic range of a track to highly driven heavy compression to add an entirely new sound to a track. The Fairchild was almost used as an instrument in its own right, and is a highly revelled and sought after piece of equipment today. Equalisation usually came from the mixing consoles, and most commonly made use of three band valve circuits with a mid-range boost switch. They would have been used on most tracks. One method of creating reverb was to use an EMT plate. This device consisted of a metal plate with a small transducer attached to the surface. Reflections in the plate were picked up by microphone-like transducers attached at different positions on the plate.

The reverb time was controlled by the amount of dampening upon the plate. Another method of recording reverb was to use an echo chamber. This simply involved putting a speaker in a room with a microphone at the other end, playing the material through the speaker and recording the reflections in the room. This was the technique favoured by the Abbey Road engineers, who made use of the several echo chambers in the studio for reverberation effects.

Graeme Allen is a recording engineer and producer based near Leeds, UK. He offers recording packages priced to suit non-professional musicians and bands who need demos.

In addition to his technical skills, Graeme is a first class musician in his own right, playing rock, blues and jazz guitar and classical violin. Visit his website at www.graemeallenproduction.co.uk.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonah Shipley November 22, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Hi there bill. This is a really helpful and interesting page to read. i am currently doing my dissipation on whether the recording studio has become a less creative place to recording bands in. I love the first quote about cubase and garageband, who said that? And is there anyway way at all i could send you an E-mail questionnaire with a few questions to help me with my research?

Thanks for your time


Thomas March 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Thanks a lot for this articel. I’m just doing a project about drumrecording and there was a lot of information I could take out of this here.

Bill March 8, 2011 at 11:10 am

hi Jonah,

Apologies – as usual, I only notice the really important comments about three months after they have been posted!

Glad you found this useful. By all means send your questionnaire over if it’s not too late. If I can’t give you useful feedback, I’ll pass it on to Graeme.

jeff wethehrold May 19, 2011 at 11:25 am

Somewhere I read that The Beatles used a speaker in reverse to record some part of a song. I thought it was the bass in Taxman. Do you know?

Billi Shears May 25, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Well, you know what they say, “you just can’t beat the sound of a valve”.

Leave a Comment