Interview with George Martin (May 1978)

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A: I always thought that your having done the Goon Shows was probably the source of a lot of the crazy sound effects on the Beatles' records.

M: Yeah. That, of course, was great fun to do, in those days. We had to create everything for ourselves. And it was like painting pictures in sound, which was great. And it was very useful experience. In fact, to be quite brutal about it, I don't think Sgt. Pepper would have existed without Peter Sellers.

Things always rub off, you know.

And when the Beatles first came along, I think one of the things that they liked about me was the fact that they knew I made these kind of records. 'Cause they were pretty zany too.

A: Do you have any "influences" as a producer? Did anybody's records stand out in any way to you?

M: Well, obviously, I like lots of records, but I really don't think I've ever been influenced by another producer's record. Producing's a pretty lonely job--you know, you don't know what another guy does.

You never see another guy producing.

You just develop on your own lines.

You know, it's no good sort of "studying" other people's techniques, because you can't really know for sure how it's done. Unless you're actually there. All you can do is ... you know, if you like a record, you can think how those particular things were achieved, but I think it's much better not to inquire about other people's, but plow your own furrow.

You try and find out things for yourself.

A: How about your arranging? Would you say that you're of any particular school or orientation?

M: Well, orchestration and arranging for instruments varies with the kind of performance that's going to be made. So, for example, you will do a different score for a pit orchestra behind the musical from the kind of score you will do for a film, or the kind of score you will do for a gramophone record. Each one depends upon how it's going to be performed.

There are some fantastic orchestrators of the past. Ravel, of course. Tchaikovsky was a great orchestrator. Debussy was pretty good. And these are the kind of people whose scores I studied.

Stravinsky is fantastic. And I would find out how they did things .... I mean, when I was 15, I was enormously turned on by going to a symphony concert in England, where they played L'Apres-midi d'un Faune by Debussy. I don't know if you know this particular piece of music ....

A: I'm going to have to look up the spelling.

M: Afternoon in the Life of a Fawn.

And its just a tone poem-an orchestral tone poem-and the sounds that I heard, as this boy of 15 sitting in this auditorium, I could not believe what those ordinary human beings in front of me were making! It was just so beautiful, so fantastic--they were gorgeous. I was so enthralled by this I thought "Well, how does it work? How do they do it? How did the guy write that music? I must find out." And I got the score of Debussy's L'Apres-midi d'un Faune and I studied it and I looked at all the notes and I saw what instrument was on which and so on. And even today, many years later, I can still listen to that same piece of music with awe, because I know how it works, I know what is done and I can write music just like it now, but I know exactly how beautiful and how brilliant they were.

A: Can you name some other compositions that influenced you?

M: Well, of course, Bach is an old favorite of mine, and he was a pretty pure guy-he didn't have orchestration techniques because there wasn't much of an orchestra in those days.

A: Pure in what sense?

M: Pure musically.

A: Who would be "impure"?

M: Well, that means two things in music, doesn't it? There's the way in which it is put over, i.e., orchestration-the coloring-and then there's the pure notes themselves, whether it's done on a harmonica, a synthesizer, or a symphony orchestra.

The actual musical frequencies and notes that go out are the original musical creation, and what you do with it and the way you color it is another matter. They're two distinct things. The design-the actual design of the music-is like a blueprint. And you don't need to hear it-you can look at it and you can admire it. You can hear it in your mind by looking at it.

And Bach, of course, was a fantastic designer of music. The purity of his music is incredible, and, in fact, it's so contemporary in many respects. A lot of the pop songs that we have today are based on Bach's ideas.

A: Would you say that Paul Buckmaster has some Bach influences?

M: Was he influenced by Bach, do you think? Possibly. I guess, like me, he's been influenced by pretty well everybody.

A: I'd be interested to explore the string quartet as a form. Was that always a favorite permutation of yours?

M: Well, I like four-part writing, and ... string quartet writing does teach you something. It teaches you to be economical, for a start, when you've got four lines to play with. It teaches you the way to dispose those lines together, and, in fact, if you write well for string quartet, I believe you write well for strings.

A lot of people make mistakes when they start trying to write for strings by thinking in keyboard fashion. Because a lot of people play piano, and they look at their two hands and they think "Well, if I transpose that to strings, it's gonna sound okay." But it doesn't work that way. You've got to think in contrapuntal terms of four lines working together. And once you've got that into your system, then you can write, I think, very well for strings.

A: Where might writing a string quartet on piano be wrong? Not as fluid an orientation?

M: No, no, it's not that. It's a question of the grouping of the notes.

That the tendency for a pianist, when he starts out, is to write a bass line and a group of things in the top. Like his two hands. The left hand is the bass line, and the right hand is a bunch of chords. And they tend to write like that-the violins and violas are up bunched together, and the cellos down by themselves. And that really doesn't work too well, 1 don't think. It doesn't make for an even spread sound.

A: Is there any order in which the parts of a string quartet traditionally are written?

M: Not really. I mean, you've got to think of the music as an entity, without thinking too much of the instrument which is natural to you. I mean, if you are a pianist, or if you're a guitar player, you are ... imprisoned by what you play, so you tend to think the way your fingers go.

That's why so many pop pieces of music written by guitar players have kind of ... whole-tone slides. Because they do that on their frets-they find a particular chord position, and by moving a couple of frets down, they get another whole tone of the same chord, and a lot of compositions are dictated by that.

A: Well, just the physical aspects of the guitar will tend to give you degradations off D, G, and C chords, but not in B, say, because there's no 8 in the open position.

M: That's right, exactly. And similarly, a pianist will do particular things that fit his hands which, in turn, influence his writing, but what I'm trying to say is that any guy who's writing music should try and free himself of those fetters. Because writing music is cerebral-it's something you think about-and you shouldn't really be influenced by the physical aspects of your body, you should think of your mind.

A: Who are considered the preeminent string quartet writers?

M: Oh, I don't know-I really couldn't answer that. You mean amongst classical people and all? Well, almost all the classical composers have written them.

Beethoven's string quartets are probably the best of all.

A: Let's talk about your horn arranging. I always saw, for what it's worth, "Beatles Brass" as sort of a subgenre of horn arranging.

M: I mean, do you think that's distinctive? Do you think that the Beatle brass is distinctive?

A: Yeah.

M: Do you really?

A: You know It Don't Come Easy? That was Beatles Brass.

M: Mmm, I think it's very ordinary.

I've never really regarded my ....

A: You're not as staccato. I think you write longer, more melodic lines, rather than just "punctuating" like most people.

M: Right. This probably, though, is a drawback rather than an asset, I don't know. I mean, it's just the way I tend to write. I've never been particularly proud of my pop brass writing. It works all right ....

A: I always saw you as the standard there. You probably are. As far as horns go, don't you think?

M: No. Well, I don't consider it my best aspect, put it that way.

A: Well, whose brass influenced you? Anyone in particular?

M: Not really, no. I don't play any brass instrument, and I just write, you know, in the way I think it should sound.

A: All things considered, who do you think you write most like?

M: Oh, I don't know. Like me, I guess. I really don't know the answer to that question. I guess one tries to have as distinctive a style as one can.

A: Let's talk about EMI back then.

How did the company work, basically? What was the A&R Department like?

M: At that time? There wasn't an A&R Department of EMI-there was a label which had its own people.

And EMI consisted of HMV, Columbia, Parlophone, and I guess Regal-Zonophone. And then the import labels like Capitol. Now HMV and Columbia were the big boys--they were the big labels-and their pop labels and their classical labels were handled by different people.

The pop label was handled by the head of production-the guy who ran the label, in fact-and he was also responsible for importing stuff from, in the case of HMV, RCA Victor, and also making his own records. And the same with Columbia-they had input from CBS, and they also made their own records.

In the days when Oscar Preuss was my boss, Leonard Smith was head of Columbia, and Norman Newell was his assistant. And Wally Norman Newell became head of Columbia, and Wally Ridley was head of HMV on the pop side. The classical end of those two labels was done by other people-Walter Legge and David Bicknell and so on.

On the Parlophone half, it was such a small label-much smaller than the big guys-that there was no other person for the classical end. We were the classical end, so we did everything. So that on our label, it was me, and that was it. And I had an assistant eventually, by the name of Ron Richards, who later became my partner. And the whole label was run by four people-me, Ron Richards, my secretary Judy Lockhart Smith, and Ron's secretary Shirley Spence. And that was it.

A: I'd be interested to know some of the specifics of the Beatles' deal with EMI.

M: I signed them to Parlophone Records for four years. I actually signed them for one year, and with three options by EMI-on the EMI side-to sign them for a further three years. So it was a four-year deal.

A: Were there any advances or guarantees?

M: No. I mean, they were unknown people, and they were lucky to get a chance, you know. And the deal-for them-was pretty rough. They didn't get much money at all out of it. On the other hand, it was the kind of thing where I said that, you know, if you have anyone who shows promise, then obviously you change the contract. It was as simple as that.

A: Your signing them was pretty much sticking your neck out, wasn't it?

M: Well, if you ran a label, you stuck your neck out every time you signed anybody. You know, I had my responsibilities-I had to sort of sign who I thought was right.

A: Weren't the Beatles like the first of those kinds of groups to get a record deal?

M: Yes, and in fact they'd already been turned down by every other record company in the country.

But that doesn't mean much, I does it? I mean, the kind of deal I signed them to wasn't gonna break the bank if they didn't work. And I needed something, and I thought they were good.

So I signed them.

A: Were the Beatles considered the best Liverpool band at the time? Were they the logical band to be the first to be recorded?

M: Not really. If you look at the bill posters of the time, they were kind of way down the list. You've got other people above them in the billing.

A: Because I remember, an early question posed to them by American reporters was "Why you guys and not the other 148 bands?" and they always said "We don't know."

M: That's right. Well, the answer is, of course, pretty obvious, but at the time we didn't know.

A: I always saw a real musical unity in the so called "Mersey Sound." The Beatles, Billy J. Kramer, Gerry and the Pacemakers-there's a definite flavor and style to it. Would you characterize it at all?

M: I wouldn't be able to analyze.

... It's for you to analyze the things we do. But I think the answer--why Liverpool happened to be the place--was that Liverpool was probably the busiest port in England, outside of London. And these guys in Liverpool rubbed shoulders with all the sailors coming off the shore. It's very much a dock area, and it's very much a ... seafaring town. It's also the sort of focus of all the Lancastershire industry-Manchester and Birmingham sell all that stuff through to Liverpool, and it's kind of a connection point, if you like. Rather like Hamburg was, and I guess influences came that way.

A: What were the first tunes you ever heard of the Beatles?

M: I can't remember.

A: Were they on a demo?

M: The very first demo I had was a tape which Brian brought to me, which I thought was interesting. And then I got them down for an afternoon in the studio-it was a recording test, in fact. And I spent an afternoon with them, and they played through some of the stuff they did.

Which was sort of standard things.

There weren't many of their own compositions-they were things like Yer Feet's Too Big by Fats Waller, and Over the Rainbow and things like that. I don't remember the actual tunes they played, but I know there were a lot of things that ... were fairly recognizable.

A: What did you think of their writing initially?

M: It was okay, but I wasn't knocked out by it. It wasn't very good, actually. I mean, it ... didn't show the enormous promise that came later.

A: How did you use to hear their new songs?

M: We would generally spend some time together, and John and Paul would just stand in front of me with their guitars and sing them to me.

A: Do you think you influenced their writing, even if only by saying "Yes, that's good" and sort of reinforcing them to do more of this here as opposed to that there?

M: I should think the only influence I had on them at that stage was to tell them to go and do better.

Because after Love Me Do, I looked around for a hit song for them and I found one, written by Mitch Murray-who was one of the writers of the day in Tin Pan Alley--and I told them to record it. And they weren't very happy about it. They did record it, and the tapes are still there.

In fact, there was a radio station that had been playing it. How Do You Do It was the title, and they came to me after we made the track and they said "Look, we can do better than this," and I said "Well, I don't believe you can, but ... show me". And they came back with Please Please Me, and I admitted that they had a super record, a super tune.

That was what I was looking for.

A: Did they have any kind of sense of their best tunes at all? Did you find that generally you and they would agree as to their strongest material?

M: Oh, sure. I mean, when Please Please Me came along, we all ... I mean, I knew it was a hit. And I told them so after we'd finished the thing--I said "You've got your first #1 record." And from then on, that spurred them on to writing more.

A: Generally, how were the tunes selected for the first three or four albums?

M: I would listen to what they had to offer, and I wasn't very impressed with it. I mean, the very first record I issued-which was Love Me Do and P.S. I Love You--was the best of the bunch they had. And it was okay, but I wasn't knocked out by it. I mean, it was good enough for a first issue, but it wasn't the big one I was looking for. And that was borne out by the success of things, 'cause it only reached #17 in the charts.

A: Did you hear One After 909 back then?

M: I think I probably did. I really can't remember. I think it's more than likely. I've no doubt it'd be written down somewhere.

A: For the first album, about how many tunes were vaguely under consideration?

M: Well, I already knew their material when we did the first album because I'd seen them up in the Cavern and I'd seen them performing.

And their first album a lot of which is issued on the Rock 'n' Roll album now--was a matter of expediency.

'Cause we had a #1 single hit, and I wanted an album out quickly to cash in on it. So I got them down to the studio and I said "Right. We're gonna do all the stuff you do at the Cavern.

And I want you to knock it out quickly." And we started at 10:00 in the morning, finished 11:00 at night, and that was the album. Not much art in it, but it worked. It had that raw gusty thing that we wanted.

A: How much recording experience did the group have before Love Me Do?

M: None.

A: Well, they'd done that thing in 1961 with Tony Sheridan.

M: That's right. With Pete Best. It was before Ringo came on the scene.

A: Did they know pretty much what to do? Did they understand what was going on, or did they just say "Take care of it"?

M: Well, they didn't know anything about recording at all in those days.

They knew that a microphone was a thing you sing into, and that was about it.

A: Did they have any ideas before you started recording about who or what they should sound like?

M: Well, they wanted a very driving sound, a very powerful sound, sure.

A: Do you think the early records captured that?

M: No.

A: What ideas, if any, did you contribute to their early recorded sound?

M: Oh, God, I don't know.

A: Was that considered a lot of drums-level-wise-for those days?

M: It's difficult for me to answer these questions, 'cause I'm not on the receiving side, you know. I don't know, you'll have to ask somebody in the street there. I didn't think so. It's difficult for me to answer. I don't know how it was received.

A: I'm told there's a Capitol of Canada version of Love Me Do that's radically different from the one we got here.

M: We did make several versions of Love Me Do, but ...

A: How did all of them get out, or as many as did get out, get out?

M: Well, there couldn't have been more than about two or three. You say "many of them"-there weren't that many. I don't know, people pinched tapes, didn't they? Only one was issued, that's for sure.

A: Were Love Me Do and P.S. I Love You actually recorded in mono? I don't think there are any stereo dubs of that.

M: Every single was issued in mono. It was never thought of as being stereo, because there were no stereo singles in those days. But the facilities I had in the studios were very primitive. We didn't have 4-track--we had stereo machines and we had mono machines. And I used the stereo machine because it was better than the mono machine. And I used to use it as a twin track-I used to put all the backing instruments on one thing and all the voices on another.

A: I see where you said those early sides were never intended for stereo release.

M: That's right. We'd never think about it then, you know. I don't think people realize today how primitive life was in the recording studio in 1962.

A: Why in England was it customary for the singles not to be included on the albums?

M: Because we thought it was better value for money. First of all, if you're gonna make a single you should make a single, and if you're gonna make an album you should make an album. And if you did include a single in an album, it should be an addition to the album rather than part of the album. Right? So that if we included a single in an album, we would make it a 14-track album instead of a 12-track album, and the extra two tracks would be the single.

A: I thought 14 was the standard.

M: Well, sometimes we used to do 14 anyway. But we always tried to make a single separate from the album, so that .... Because we thought people will buy both. And eventually, they would probably aggregate the singles into album form. But the singles market in those days in England was different from the album market.

A: Why do you think that we in the United States got so many mono versions of tunes that appeared in England in stereo? As so many were also single sides, I always surmised that what happened was that Capitol would get the singles as mono dubs and not reorder the stereo dubs for inclusion on the albums.

M: Well, in the early days, Capitol did some very strange things, and we didn't like what they were doing at all, but we had no control over it.

And I got very uptight about it all.

A: It's a wonder it went on as long as it did. Sgt. Pepper was the first album not to have been tampered with.

M: Well, as I say, we had no control over it. Capitol then in those days was run by guys who thought that they knew all the answers.

Anytime we'd complain, they'd say "Well, you don't know the American market. We do." And what can you do from England 7,000 miles away? And whenever I came over I was an embarrassment to them anyway. I was sort of kept in the background.

A: Capitol even went so far as to change running orders and B-sides. In England, the single was I Want to Hold Your Hand/This Boy, but in America it was I Want to Hold Your Hand / I Saw Her Standing There-- both up-tempo rockers-presumably to enhance its chances of hitting. And when the album came out, the first three songs were I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There, and This Boy.

M: Well, I guess people were trying to justify their existence. As I say, we had no control over it-we didn't know what was being done. We knew later when it was done, but the answer always came back "We know this market better than you do. So stay out of it." And they took the credit for it too. I got very uptight when I'd see records that I'd produced, and I'd see an American version of it and it said "Produced by George Martin in England and Dave Dexter in America." Look at some of those early albums-you'll find it that way. In fact, on the first album it was just "Produced by Dave Dexter." And Alan Livingstone, who was head of Capitol at that time ... he would sort of hog all the limelight. I remember a press reception, and somebody kept me in a back room, 'cause I was there. And I was never introduced to any of the press or anything.

A: It seems to me that the feeling at Capitol was that this was a transient sort of phenomenon, and we'd best cash in on it right now.

M: Well, everybody thought it was a transient phenomenon anyway.

Even at EMI-everybody did. They'd say "It couldn't last."

A: At what point did you realize what you were on to?

M: I never did realize ... I mean, I just knew that I wanted to make something, and I didn't want it to stop. And I wanted to keep going. I didn't really think about it being a transient phenomenon at all. It was just something you did.

A: In addition to different selections on the American Beatle records, wasn't there some re-EQing and re mastering done as well?

M: I never really heard the stuff until I came over and bought records.

They never sent us the stuff. I didn't know what was going out.

A: Can you talk about the Beatles' harmony sound? Did they generally supervise all the parts being worked out?

M: They had their own basic sound, which I elaborated on.

Whenever they wanted anything new worked out, we used to work it out together. It was a team. I mean, eventually, when it became as complicated a track as Because-- which was three sets of three harmonies .... When we worked out those harmonies, I would sort of go down to the piano and say "Right.

John, you sing this. Paul, you sing this." And Paul would then say "Well, can I sing such-and-such?" You know, that was the way we worked it out.

A: Did you notice any sort of standard "slots"? When, say, John would take the lead-assuming a standard I-III-IV harmony--would George usually take the third and Paul the fifth? Did they have some basic starting point?

M: The basic starting point was the song. It was a tune, and they would add harmonies to it. As they felt like it. I mean, depends on what period of their development you're talking about-10 years, you know. In the early days? Then it was obvious just to add a third above or below the voice-the main voice--according to which way the chords were. You know, it was very elementary stuff.

But then, you don't need me to tell you this-you know, if you listen to the record, you can find out for yourself.

A: What exactly is ADT? Isn't it just a high-speed tape delay?

M: ADT is Artificial Double Tracking. It was a thing that I wanted to be done in the early days, and it was developed by Ken Townsend, who's now the head of EMI Studios in London. At that time, he was a backroom boy-you know, one of the maintenance engineers-and he knew exactly what we wanted, and he worked out the way of doing it.

Well, it's a pretty obvious thing now--it's done quite a bit. Although it isn't done much in this country.

The normal thing over here when you go into a studio and you ask for automatic double-tracking-if you ask for a double-tracking voice without having to double-track the voice--they'll give you a digital delay. Which is not the same thing at all. Cooper Time Cube I don't like--it gives a very .... Well, it colors the sound, for a start.

The ADT that we use is taking the signal off the sync replay and bringing it into line with the recording head by means of another tape machine, and putting that tape machine on variable speed, so that you can bring it in and out of phase with the original signal. And by varying the time difference, it goes straight from being locked in exactly the same, through phasing, through a kind of funny "telephone box" quality, to a kind of ADT thing, to a tape delay sound. There's all those variations, depending on the range you get. You have to find the exact right space for a really good ADT sound, which is, in my experience, 'round about 27 or 28 milliseconds.

And then, the sophistication of using tape rather than digital delay is you can then vary the speed of tape very slightly. So that it drifts between say 24 and 30 milliseconds all the time--constantly. You control that on the VSC, manually.

A: Would you do this live?

M: No, in the mixing. You can't do it live. you have to do it mixing, because you have to do it only after the thing's recorded--you can't do it any other way. And by doing that, you're varying the frequency as well as the time difference. In other words, you're altering the pitch of the voice---if it's a voice--as well as the actual timing. So that it actually does help, and it does make it a slightly different quality of voice.

A: Do you think you were the first to use this?

M: I think we were. As far as I know. I said to Ken "Wouldn't it be nice not to have to keep doing these voices over and over again?" And he went away and thought about it and came up with this idea, which was great. Well, the strange thing is, working in this country, people don't know about it. Whatever studio I go to, I say "Let's do this," and they say "Really that's .... Wow, that's great." And they actually do it over here now.

The interesting thing is that that particular idea is very useful in stereo, because I hate having all the voices coming up center with the main voice-I like to spread them around a bit. So if you have an Artificial Double Tracking thing on the backing voice, you can put one each side. The other interesting thing is that when you do that, the one that is late by say 28 milliseconds is about 4 dB down in apparent sound.

The ear always hears the earlier sound louder than the later sound. So you have to compensate for that by boosting the Artificial Double Track by about 4 dB.

A: Just any kind of delay, the ear hears as behind-spatially--the original signal if it's noticeably lower in level.

M: I've never noticed that. It certainly gives a very strange characteristic which I find very useful in recording. There you go-that's ADT.

A: I'd be interested to hear you talk about the "wound-up piano."

M: I used that basically on Billy J. Kramer-that was the kind of sound that we gave to him, when he came along. I call it "wound-up piano" because .... Everybody does it now occasionally. It's just taking the track down half speed, putting a piano an octave down, and then bringing it back to normal level. It gives you a kind of harpsichord-y effect, 'cause all the decay of all the notes is halved, and the vibrato is doubled.

A: With some compression?

M: With a lot of compression, and equalization.

A: What kind of limiters were you using then?

M: I think they were Fairchilds, I wouldn't be sure.

A: Do you think you were the first to do non-standard speed recording?

M: Probably, I don't know.

A: Had you ever heard of anyone else doing it?

M: No. Oh, yes, I had--Les Paul.

(Source: Audio magazine, May 1978)

Also see: The Audio Interview: George Martin (June 1987)

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