Monday, October 8, 2018

The White Album 50 Project: The Power of Eight

At the end of July 1968, about two weeks after the Beatles moaned about EMI not taking the time to decorate Studio Two at the Abbey Road facility, the group retired to Trident Studios, an independent studio complex in the Soho section of London, for a change of scenery. At Trident, the group recorded the final master of "Hey Jude."  There they discovered the value of eight-track tape machines.
The Beatles started out with two-track tape - the music on one track, the vocals on the other - when they began recording for EMI in 1962.  They had worked with four-track tape since October 1963, and they were very adept at taking advantage of the extra tracks for overdubbing.  Now, at Trident,  while recording "Hey Jude," they realized that one could improve musical arrangements and add more instruments to make better records with twice as many tracks, just as they had found when making the transition to four-track tape five years earlier, and they were chomping at the bit to record on eight-track when they went back to Abbey Road.  It turned out that Abbey Road did in fact have an eight-track tape machine - a new 3M model, similar to the one pictured above - but it was kept in the office of EMI staffer Francis Thompson, who oversaw the acquisition of tape machines and didn't let anyone use them until he said they were up to par and ready to go.  As of the beginning of September 1968, when the Beatles learned that Thompson had an eight-track machine in his office, he had still not cleared it for use.  The group decided to go ahead and get it and wheel it into Studio Two.  Thompson be damned.
The first use of an eight-track tape machine on a Beatles recording at Abbey Road was the remake of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that appears on the White Album, followed by the remake of "Helter Skelter" that also appears on the record.  "Glass Onion" was the first song the Beatles recorded on eight-track from the start at Abbey Road.  (Not every song the group recorded in September and October 1968 was taped with an eight-track machine, but many of them were.)  The new machine did indeed allow the Beatles to add more instruments at will and mix out whatever didn't work, and it lessened the need to mix down the tape to less than the full number of tracks to free up one or two tracks for further overdubbing, but it didn't necessarily improve the quality of the recordings.  Hey, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper fared well with four-track tape, right?  And in fact, the Beatles over-recorded at least one song to the point where the drum sound was buried, so Ringo Starr, according to Abbey Road staffer Brain Gibson, taped for the song a drum pattern that he played on a plastic chair cushion to emphasize the snare beat.  Gibson could not remember which song that was.
Once the Beatles got the hang of eight-track recording, they showed restraint.  But pop musicians who followed them would be subjected to greater temptation to go overboard, as the number of tracks on tape kept increasing - soon after the debut of eight-track machines, 16-track machines were in use, followed by 24-track machines, 32-track machines, 64-track machines, and so on.  Some critics have charged that multi-track recording led to more professional but more antiseptic records, which ultimately took the heart out of rock and roll and led to the soulless pop records we have to deal with today in the post-rock era.  The Beatles were more judicious and more careful with multi-track recording than others, both as a group and as solo artists.  It is true that multi-tracking led to some overproduced records in the 1970s.  But even the records of that era were more soulful and alive than anything recorded on the 96-track digital recording machines that had taken over the music business by the late 1980s.     
And in using multi-track tape machines, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (above, at the Abbey Road mixing console), along with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, learned something that any comic-book geek will tell you - with great power comes great responsibility.

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