More than any other Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had to be perfect. Paul McCartney said, “It had to be just right. We tried, and I think succeeded in achieving what we set out to do. If we hadn’t, then it wouldn’t be out now” (Spangler, 1997). It took months of recording on the part of the band, fighting a bit amongst each other and outside musicians, and a lot of innovation on the part of the engineers to realize this monumental vision.
When you’re an international sensation, you can afford a lot of studio time. It was a good thing for the Beatles, since their ideas would come in the studio and have to be refined over the course of hours or days. At the album release party, Harrison remarked, “Now that we only play in the studios . . . we have less of a clue what we’re going to do. We have to start from scratch, just thrashing it out and doing it the hard way. Nobody knows what the tune sounds like until we’ve recorded it and listen afterward” (Davies, 2010, pp. 262-263). It was up to each songwriter to convey his vision, and then have everyone help to finish it. Ringo Starr recalls,
“Sgt. Pepper was our grandest endeavor. I gave everybody—including me—a lot of leeway to come up with ideas and to try different material. John and Paul would write songs at home, usually . . . and bring them in . . . and help each other, and we’d all help. The great thing . . . was that whoever had the best idea (it didn’t matter who), that would be the one we’d use. No one was standing on their ego, saying, ‘Well, it’s mine,’ and getting possessive. Always, the best was used. That’s why the standard remained high. Anything could happen, and that was an exciting process” (Sgt. Pepper, 2000, p. 241).
Lennon and McCartney were especially used to bouncing ideas off each other and contributing to each other’s works. For this album, McCartney contributed a majority of the ideas for songs; Lennon had a few that were mostly his, and Harrison had one. In interviews, Lennon and McCartney recall the songwriting process as very collaborative. “Getting Better” and “She’s Leaving Home” were particularly collaborative. The more optimistic parts of “Getting Better” were McCartney, writing in his usual style; the more depressing lines were Lennon being autobiographical. “It’s a diary form of writing. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically . . . I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence” (Womack, 2016, p. 167). In “She’s Leaving Home,” McCartney came up with most of the song, and Lennon decided on the sustained C chords, the Greek chorus, and some of the lines.
“They didn’t know what they wanted, just that they wanted different sounds,” remarked Geoff Emerick (“Sound Engineer,” 2017). Lennon, in particular, couldn’t be bothered with figuring out how to accomplish his visions; he left that to the others. For example, when talking about “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” he told Emerick he wanted “some kind of swirly music . . . I want the sound of the fairground around my voice; I want to be able to smell the sawdust and the animals. I want to feel like I’m at the circus with Mr. Kite and the Hendersons and all that” (Rybaczewski). The engineers and George Martin were mostly left with figuring out how to build that scene. To make the recording, there was a bass harmonica and three treble harmonicas, maracas, a harmonium, a Wurlitzer organ and a glock. The engineers also added many effects, especially reverbs and delays that were altered in real time. Some instruments were recorded at half speed, and tape effects were abundant (Rybaczewski).
Since the sessions went so long and disorganized, various people got left out at different times and others were invited for single sessions. Lennon recalls, “We came along one night and [Harrison] had about 400 Indian fellas playing, and it was a great swinging event, as they say” (Sgt. Pepper, 2000, p. 243). The orchestra was particularly difficult on the last song, since they wanted everything notated traditionally. In “A Day in the Life,” most of the players refused to play the two builds. The brass players who had been part of previous sessions helped convince them to do it anyway. McCartney recalls, “It was interesting because I saw the orchestra’s characters. The strings were like sheep—they all looked at each other: ‘are you going up? I am. And they’d all go up together; the leader would take them all up. The trumpets were much wilder” (Womack, 2014, p. 213). One of the most consistently great aspects of the album is McCartney’s bass lines. These were usually done late at night. It was just McCartney, Lush, and Emerick. They’d play the final mix sans bass, and McCartney would do takes until everything was perfect, “constantly peering up into the control room to see if [the engineers] were giving him a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down” (Rybaczewski). Most likely, the bass was sent through a Fairchild 660 Limiter—the favorite of Emerick at the time (“Sound Engineer,” 2017).
If there is a single effect that is the signature of the entire album, it’s the ADT’s double tracking and corresponding flanging. It’s used on vocals and instruments as often as modern producers use reverb. Emerick explains, “John was getting lazy. He said, ‘why have I got to sing it again when you’ve got a machine that can do it?’ The sync head of a multi-track machine gave the replay signal before the playback. It was a copy of the vocal before you heard it, making it so you could double it before or after the original audio” (“Sound Engineer,” 2017). He further explains why it was so effective, “One reason why our automatic double tracking worked so well was that it had a sweep oscillator control that you could actually play like a musical instrument, allowing you to constantly vary the delay time in response to the performance” (Rybaczewski).
The first thing you’ll notice on the album is the cleanliness of each instrument. With multi-tracking, they were able to get good separation between audio sources—something that probably helped a lot when they were forced to mix in stereo. Unlike some earlier albums, the lead and background vocals are treated differently in different parts of the album. Sound effects were also flown in by the engineers, like the audience in the first track and the animals in “Good Morning Good Morning.”
In “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the ADT is in heavy use on the instruments, especially the guitar; at one point, you can hear considerable phasing from the effect. In “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the voice and guitars are all doubled. The harmonium was fuller when it was originally recorded, as evidenced by a take that was preserved (“Lucy in the Sky,” 2017); comparing the two versions shows an example of limiting an instrument’s frequencies via equalization to fit it in a mix. The final harmonium sounds tinny and piercing, but occupies its spot effectively. The double-tracked vocals are off just enough to give a psychedelic feel; the flanging on various instruments (especially the sitar) have a similar effect—very fitting for a Lennon track. It’s a rarity to hear phasing as creatively controlled as on Pepper.
“Getting Better” has ample use of the ADT on lead vocals. It almost sounds like a short chorus doubling. This song has one of the better stereo images; the two guitars are placed hard right and left, with different rhythms and tones that compliment and counterpoint each other. Also on full display is the micing technique on the drums; it’s a very clean and full sound.
In “Fixing a Hole,” both vocals and the fill guitar have a long reverb, giving the song a different feel than previous tracks. Around 1:40, the backing vocals sound like they were either recorded through the guitar amp or they clipped; it sounds intentional, whichever the method.
“She’s Leaving Home” is great in stereo, especially the strings. The harp sounds like it was run through the ADT, but only when it’s featured. This was a necessity as Lush recalls, “Normal is not allowed on a Beatle record” (“Richard Lush,” 2017). The sound of the lead vocal in the chorus seems inspired by The Beach Boys. Having two passes of lead, backing vocals, strings, and a harp required multi-tracking, for sure. The break at 2:31 makes it obvious that there was heavy editing, splicing together various takes. It could be the result of only having a limited amount of tape/tracks. Emerick gives an example of this limitation when he told Paul to keep the word “dream” short so it wouldn’t have its tail cut off by Lennon’s singing that comes in right after in “A Day in the Life” (“Sound Engineer,” 2017).
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Within You Without You” probably have the most effects. They contrast each other by the former being very clean and the latter incorporation a host of Indian musicians and exotic instruments. “Mr. Kite” uses lots of automated effects, and the sitar in “Within You” is very heavily flanged. The complementary and innovative nature of classical and Indian strings playing together is what really sets the song apart. At 3:31, the swarmandala (I assume) grows closer as reverb is altered from wet to dry.
The heaviest use of ADT on lead vocals is on “Lovely Rita.” It and “When I’m Sixty-Four” were both recorded exceptionally clean. In contrast, “Good Morning Good Morning” is by far the messiest track on the album, probably the result of having the most mixdowns and flown-in effects. An interesting effect in “Lovely Rita,” was the tape wobble Emerick came up with. “I wanted a shimmer behind the piano [so] I used an echo chamber . . . I stuck sticky tape on the guide rolls of the tape machine. It wobbled the tape going through the heads and wobbled the sound into the chamber” (“Sound Engineer,” 2017).
A common complaint of Sgt. Pepper is the stereo image. Both engineers have strong feelings on the matter. Emerick remarks, “I’m disgusted by this reissue . . . It wasn’t recorded in stereo; it was recorded in mono. All these reissue things are based on technical things; the artistic things have been completely ignored” (“Sound Engineer,” 2017). Lush states, “The mono is the only one to listen to ever” (“Richard Lush,” 2017).
Overall, Sgt. Pepper’s legacy will last as long as people make recordings, even if the album itself is forgotten. The effects and techniques refined and invented in the six months of recording inspired countless engineers and developers. As Emerick points out, “Most plug-ins are based on the things we used to do” (“Sound Engineer,” 2017). Even techniques as simple as being “forced to make decisions,” due to the limitations of four-track recorders still apply today (“Richard Lush,” 2017). The exceptionally high quality of the masters also led many other groups to elevate their overall production quality, raising the bar forever.
Davies, H. (2010). The Beatles and Their Music. In The Beatles (2nd Revised ed., pp. 262-263).
Martin, G. (Producer). (2017). Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (Take 1 / Audio).
Puccini, J. (Producer). (2017, May 24). Richard Lush Talks about Working with The Beatles on Their Landmark Sgt Pepper’s Album [Video].
Puccini, J. (Producer). (2017, May 24). Sound Engineer Geoff Emerick Remembers Recording The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Album [Video].
Rybaczewski, D. (n.d.). “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” History.
Rybaczewski, D. (n.d.). “Lovely Rita” History.
Sgt. Pepper. (2000). In B. Roylance (Ed.), The Beatles Anthology.
Spangler, Jay. (1997). Beatles Interview: Sgt Pepper Launch Party 5/19/1967. Transcribed from “Dinner with the Beatles,” by Norrie Drummond in New Musical Express.
Womack, K. (2014). The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four.
Feature photo: By Capitol Records (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons