How to sound like the Beatles Revolver Album
The Beatles, the fabbest of four there ever were released their 7th studio album Revolver in 1966 and it was a watershed moment in rock history, in came at time of great change both culturally and musically and saw the Beatles transcend from teen idols into revolutionaries and with this, help change the face of popular music forever.
By 66 the group had become a bit dissatisfied with their overall sound, they felt they didn’t quite have the same impact sonically as the American records they adored, especially those coming from Detroit and the Motown label. The main gripe was the lack of impact and bass in the recordings, Paul was after more presence in the low end and Johns insistence for “thunderous’ Drums led to the main engineer of the record Geof Emerick to experiment with his mic placement and moving the mics right up to the drum heads (earning him an EMI reprimand for "microphone abuse.’
The basic set up for the drum kit was the AKG d19c for a single overhead, the D19 was a good quality dynamic mic that Abbey Road happened to have an abundance of, a modern equivalent would be something like a Shure sm57. The bass drum was mic’d with Akg D20 and a third mic the Neuman km56 was place underneath the snare.
This blend was then balanced through the EMI RS144 4-Way submixer into the REDD.51 console.
At the beginning of this era, Emerick along with another prominent abbey road engineer Ken Townshend, experimented by taking one of the monitor speakers and reverse wiring it as a microphone in order to record Paul’s bass amp. He also dedicated a whole track to the bass on the recording of Rain and only backing vocals accompanied it on Paperback writer. While the experiment proved fruitful as it was stark how much more powerful the bass was on the record, this sound could really be more attributed to Geof Emerick’s liberal use of compression. Geoff had just made the transition from disc cutting and knew just how much volume and bass could be squeezed onto a record and managed to create the template for a more aggressive or thunderous sound that the band desired.
The key to all this was the use of the Fairchiild 660 compressor and the EMI RS124 compressor .
They also utilised the EMI's invention (Automatic Transient Overload Control or ATOC. With this they were able to add extra bass. The Abbey Road Studios' website recalls that this “allowed mastering engineer Tony Clark to cut The Beatles’ Paperback Writer with an extremely high bass factor without causing the needle on a record player to jump”.
The RS124 was an EMI modified Altec 436B. This was know as Abbey Road secret weapon as it wasn’t commercially available in its modified form and could be heard all over The Beatles recording of this time. It wasn’t uncommon them for them to track with it bounce down and even master with it so in essence using it in triplicate.
Few pieces of gear define music history as the RS124 does. The custom-built RS124 compressors were the secret weapon of Abbey Road engineers during the ‘60s – favoured by Geoff Emerick for punchy bass sounds; by Ken Scott for lush guitar treatment; by Norman Smith for lightly gluing the entire rhythm bus. RS124 was also a popular choice for mastering in Abbey Road’s cutting rooms.
The RS124 sound is especially famous for the thick, creamy bass tones and the Abbey Road engineers would typically push the input of the RS124 deep into 15-20 dB of gain reduction, producing wonderfully lush results on numerous sources
Other aspects that affected their evolving sounds were their instruments, Its at this time that Paul shifted away from recording with his trusty Hofner and started using mainly a Rickenbacker 4001S, On “the Rickenbacker McCartney said It sounded a little clearer, ," "and it seemed a little heavier - not just literally heavier but it played a little more solid than the Hofner." Paul says the long-scale Rickenbacker felt different, but stayed in tune much better than the Hofner.
New guitars for the sessions included Harrison's recently acquired 1964 Gibson SG Standard, his main guitar for Revolver, and Lennon and Harrison's sunburst Epiphone Casinos.
For the guitar amps, the boys had an upgrade from the usually AC30’s and acquired The UL7120’s with built–in fuzz circuits l. You can hear them in full–tilt on songs such as “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “She Said, She Said.” “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” also harness the muscle of these amps . A fender showman was also added to the line up and apparently George would also Appropriate the cream coloured Fender Bassman for use with his guitar. Paul’s bass amp of choice at this time was either the Fender bassman or the Vox UL4120.
The recording medium was of course tape and limited to 4 tracks on the Studer J37. This meant for the most part laying down a backing track of drums, bass and rhythm guitar on track 1 and then subsequent overdubs from there. This seems incredibly limited by todays standards and it meant they had to get it right from the start of the process. They did do tape reductions on Revolver where they would consolidate multiple tracks into one or two new tracks on a fresh 4 track machine to free up space for more parts if needed.
Once all the recordings were complete, those 4 track would then be mixed down to a master recorder, primarily in mono as this was still the main consumer format of the day and later quickly in stereo. The main mastering recorder was the BTR2, or the big green tape machine as it was known.
For EQ and tonal shaping at both the tracking and mixing stage, abbey road had another secret weapon given the name ‘The Curvebender’
Designed in 1952 by Mike Batchelor, It was the world’s first parametric equaliser and completely passive in design; it required no power. It was initially intended for the disc cutting rooms but sometimes made its way into the recording studios, if special permission was granted. The the unit was tremendously more powerfully than the comparatively primitive REDD mixing console
Another bit of kit was the EMI RS92 Neumann Mic Equaliser some believe -It cuts the boomy low end and drops the 8k peak found in Neumann large diaphragm mics.
Because the REDD consoles were limited in their onboard EQ, these EQ boxes were designed to solve this problem, EMI engineers built the Presence Box, offering 10 dB of cut or boost at 2.7 kHz, 3.5 kHz and 10 kHz. The units were in constant operation throughout the studios during recording and mixing, even finding their way into the cutting rooms.
Despite being an incredible singer, John was never too happy with hearing his voice and often anted it sound different I some way, when he came in to record Tomorrow never knows he proclaimed that on this record he should sound like the Dali Lama singing from a Tibetan mountain, in the end patching his mic through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet gave him enough of a thrill and certainly safer than spinning him around a microphone on a rope which was bizarrely an actual suggestion.
Another trick to get his voice to sound different was a process called Artificial double tracking or ADT for short. The standard practice of double tracking whereby you would just record the voice again carefully in time took a lot of skill and time to do. Ken Townshend though about this and brilliant came up with a system involving two different tape machines, the first fed a signal to the output as normal but also a signal from its record head to another machine that’s speed was controlled by a dial. Blending these two signals together while moving the speed dial created a really interesting phase effect that John loved and used quite often.
Revolver saw the Beatles first experimentation with tape loops, the Track Tomorrow never Knows was a direct inspiration from the world of avant garden music made by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and a far cry from Hermans Hermits and Gerry and the pacemakers. The drums themselves were a two bar drum loop and They were even sampling whole musical parts as the brass band featured in Yellow Submarine was taken form the EMI sound effects tape (Volume 46) containing the song ‘Le Rêve Passe’ (The Dream Passes), a French patriotic song from the Napoleonic era.
Backwards guitar makes its debut also in this era and most notably on I’m only sleeping which sets the tone for more Psychedelic flavours to come.
For most mortals, a lot of these tools are far too unique to get your hands on unless you hire abbey road or in the case of the Fairchild, have at least 5k spare for a copy or at least 40k for the real thing.
Luckily there have been a few plugins release over the years that emulate these almost priceless bits of gear so we can experiment and see how close we can get to this sound.
The main pieces have been emulated by Waves with their Abbey Road pack and include the desk, The REDD 51 , the curve bender with the RS56, The RS124 compressor and the Puigchild which is a Fairchild emulation from Jack Jospeh Puig collection.The tape is in the form of the J37, the reverb chambers are also available in this pack. The presence box is available for Softube and Acoustica have released the Cream 2 plugin which aims to be a one stop shop for this signal flow emulating the BTR2 tube pre amp (which I will use on my master bus), but also the presence boxes and the RS124 so I’m going to interchange with the Waves versions as apparently no two versions of the RS124 ever sounded alike even in the Beatles days so it will be good to hear the different flavours.