Geoff Emerick, Beatles engineer on ‘Revolver,’ ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ White Album, dies at 72
Geoff Emerick, the innovative English recording engineer who most famously worked in tandem with producer George Martin on several of the Beatles’ most artistically and sonically groundbreaking recordings in the mid-1960s, died Tuesday at 72 at his home in Los Angeles, his spokeswoman said. Preliminary indications show the cause of death as cardiac arrest.
“Geoff Emerick was a true pioneer of the recording industry, playing a huge part not only in Abbey Road Studios’ own history, but in music history itself, through his innovative work with the Beatles, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder and more,” Abbey Road’s managing director Isabel Garvey said in a statement issued Wednesday. “His contribution to some of the world’s greatest musical recordings and his impact on popular music and audio technology is immeasurable.”
Emerick was a teenage assistant at EMI Recording Studios in London, more familiarly referred to as the Abbey Road studio, when he was tapped to work with the Beatles after their previous engineer, Norman Smith, moved on to other projects.
“I first met Geoff when he was a young engineer working at Abbey Road Studios,” Paul McCartney said in a statement issued Wednesday. “He would grow to be the main engineer that we worked with on many of our Beatles tracks. He had a sense of humour that fitted well with our attitude to work in the studio and was always open to the many new ideas that we threw at him. He grew to understand what we liked to hear and developed all sorts of techniques to achieve this.”
It was during work on the group’s 1966 album “Revolver” that Emerick began contributing significantly to the Fab Four’s revolutionary recordings, as they, with Martin and himself collaborating significantly, began to treat the studio as more than a place to document live performances but as an additional artistic tool with which to manipulate and augment their songs using every piece of technology at hand — and some pieces that weren’t.
“Beyond my immense relief at having passed muster and being accepted as the Beatles’ new engineer, it’s probably not too far-fetched to claim that recording history was made during the very first night of working on ‘Revolver,’ ” Emerick wrote in his 2006 autobiography, “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles.” “Certainly the drum sound I contrived for Ringo by moving the [microphones] in close and stuffing a blanket inside the bass drum has become the standard to this very day.”
Starr, in a statement, said, “I am so sorry and shocked to hear about Geoff Emerick. He was a great engineer, very helpful to all of us in the studio. With him and George Martin, they helped us to step up on ‘Revolver’.”
“Even John’s vocal-through-a-Leslie [rotating speaker] trick (which in the end we used only on the very last verse of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’) has become a stock-in-trade whenever a producer wants a singer to sound eerily removed,” Emerick wrote, “or even sometimes when they just need to mask poor singing.”
Emerick started work at Abbey Road in 1962 as a studio assistant. “The EMI ‘way’ was to move inexorably upward, from assistant to playback lacquer to mastering to balance engineer, whether that’s what you wanted to do or not.
“It was a system that made a certain amount of sense insofar as you learned every aspect of the recording process,” he wrote. “The theory was that, before you became a balance engineer, you would know what could and could not technically make it onto vinyl, what would make the needle jump and what wouldn’t, and how to get a record loud. Then, as now, the object was to get your record louder than anybody else’s.”
Emerick was also crucial to the recording of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Magical Mystery Tour” and a big part of “The Beatles,” the 1968 double album usually referred to as the White Album.
He won the Grammy Award for best engineered non-classical album of 1967 for his work “Sgt. Pepper.” It was the first of three career Grammy wins—the others being for “Abbey Road” in 1969” and Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” in 1974. He also was awarded a technical Grammy in 2003.
It was during the exhaustive, exhausting and often around-the-clock sessions for the latter that Emerick quit work with the Beatles out of sheer exhaustion and frustration at the demands heaped on those who were charged with helping transform the band members’ exotic ideas into reality.
“In early July [of 1968] we started working on Paul’s ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,’ ” Emerick said of his decision to abandon the Beatles ship. “It was a song John hated with a passion, and the bad feelings it engendered led to tensions that I ultimately found impossible to bear.”
Although he continued to engineer other projects as the Beatles moved into solo careers amid the ultimate disintegration of the band, he moved from EMI to the Beatles’ new label, Apple. He had only cursory involvement in work on the album that would become “Let It Be,” but returned — at the group’s request — to work on “Abbey Road,” the final album they recorded, although it was released before the much-troubled “Let It Be” would see the light of day.
Emerick went on to work with a wide variety of other musicians and groups including Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Jeff Beck, America, Art Garfunkel, Robin Trower, New Zealand’s Split Enz, folk-rocker Tim Hardin, California all-female rock band Fanny, and took a job offered to him by Martin at Martin’s own AIR Studio he opened around the time the Beatles broke up in 1970. He also engineered McCartney’s “Band on the Run,” largely recorded in Lagos, Nigeria.
McCartney said he saw Emerick again this year while finishing his just-released album, “Egypt Station” in Los Angeles. “He was his usual cheerful friendly self and gave me the thumbs up to the mixes we played him.” McCartney said. “I’ll always remember him with great fondness and I know his work will be long remembered by connoisseurs of sound.”
Among those many other albums Emerick engineered was Costello’s highly acclaimed “Imperial Bedroom” in 1982.
“One of my favorite memories ….is Geoff politely cursing the recording desk when it proved impossible to make it distort in an attractive and interesting fashion,” Costello recalled in his foreword to Emerick’s book. “So many of the sounds in today’s recording studios come out of little boxes that merely imitate the sonic innovations of the past…. Despite all the endless theorizing about pop music of the 1960s, the contribution of a small handful of engineers is still not fully appreciated.
“Over our weeks in the studio,” Costello wrote, “an instrumental tone or sonic effect that seemed fleetingly familiar would suddenly appear, but we never got the impression that Geoff was shaping the sound from a clichéd ‘box of tricks.’ The songs and moods of the performance always took precedence over the way they might be filtered, altered, or changed on their way to tape. By the end of our time together, we found that Geoff had helped us produce the richest and most varied-sounding record of our career to date.”
Emerick was “one of finest and most innovative engineers to have graced a recording studio,” Martin’s son, producer Giles Martin, tweeted Wednesday. “I grew up with him as he worked so much with my father. We have all been touched by the sounds he helped create on the greatest music ever recorded.”
Information on Emerick’s survivors and plans for funeral or memorial service was not immediately available.
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1:25 p.m. This article was updated with comments from Paul McCartney. Information about the location and cause of death also were updated.
Oct. 4, 12:36 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Ringo Starr.
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