A look at some of the equipment used on Beatles recordings
By Phil O'Keefe
While recording technology in America was in some cases more advanced than that available in the UK in the 1960s, especially in terms of the number of tracks available on multitrack recorders (Les Paul, as well as Tom Dowd at Atlantic Records had been using eight-track reel to reel machines since the late 1950s, while Abbey Road Studios wouldn't see their first eight track go into service until 1968) , there was considerable innovation occurring at EMI, and Abbey Road was (and remains) one of the world's best sounding and most respected studios, as it has since first opening its doors in 1931. The studio's association with The Beatles would only add to its reputation.
A lot of the sound of the records that the Beatles made was due to the sound of the sources - the instruments they used and the unique acoustics of Abbey Road's studios - particularly Studio 2, where the Beatles recorded the majority of their music. EMI had strict standards with regards to recording equipment, and while they used gear from other manufacturers such as Altec and Fairchild, it was often modified in-house to meet their requirements.
The Beatles were constantly in search of new sounds and tonal textures, whether they came from classical Western instruments, Eastern instruments, or new technology and recording techniques, and this further added to the uniqueness of their records, as did the technical excellence of the engineers, and George Martin's production and arranging.
Unfortunately, most of the microphones that were used on various Beatles sessions are now long-discontinued, and tend to go for big bucks on the vintage market. The Neumann U47 and U48 were probably the most significant models, and Abbey Road studios owned several of each. They were essentially the same microphone, with the U47 featuring switchable cardioid and omnidirectional patterns, while the U48 had cardioid and bi-directional ("figure-8") polar patterns. These microphones were used by engineer Norman Smith on guitar amps on the early and mid-period Beatles albums, and they were also used on most of the vocal recordings the Beatles did throughout their career. Later the Neumann U67, another multi-pattern tube mic, was also used extensively on guitar amplifiers. Engineer Geoff Emerick sometimes used yet another tube mic, the AKG C12, on Paul McCartney's bass amp, placing it several feet in front of it to capture the sound he wanted. The C12 was built between 1953 and 1963, and although it's no longer available, AKG does offer a somewhat similar model today called the C12VR. The AKG D19 dynamic microphones that were extensively used on drums are also long-discontinued and hard to find, as is the AKG D20 (a predecessor of the AKG D12) that was often used to mic the bass drum on Beatles recordings.
A lot of the recording equipment used at EMI / Abbey Road studios was custom-built; either by Abbey Road's in-house engineers, or at EMI's own manufacturing facility in Hayes. Much of this equipment was not available for sale to the general public or to other studios outside of the EMI corporation. This included the REDD 37 and REDD 51 tube mixing consoles that were used on the majority of Beatles records, as well as the solid state TG 12345 console that was used for recording and mixing Abbey Road. The BTR mono and two-track reel to reel tape recorders that were utilized for their earliest records were also made by EMI. Later, four-track machines from Telefunken and Studer were heavily used, with the Studer J37 four track being particularly noteworthy for its use on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. By 1968, 3M eight-track machines were also being used to provide expanded track counts for their later albums.
Today much of this equipment can be difficult to impossible to find. However, there are several plugins on the market that are designed to emulate some of it, such as the Waves / Abbey Road Studios J37 Tape, ReelADT, and REDD Consoles plugins. Also Chandler has released some hardware that is based on Abbey Road designs, such as the TG2, which is available in both rackmount and 500-series versions.
However, more important than the equipment is the attitude. Playing together when possible, and the spirit of inventiveness and creativity that was so obviously a part of the Beatles recording sessions.
At the end of the day, the magic of the Beatles came down to great songs, inspired arrangements and performances, and a creative approach to capturing and manipulating sound. The gear that they used, while an important contributor to the sounds we hear on those iconic recordings, is in many ways less important than the material they were recording, and the attitude and approach that they took to creating their records.
If you're interested in learning more about the actual instruments the Beatles used throughout their careers, how to play their songs, and the methods they used when they were recording them, there are some books you may find interesting and helpful, including The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn, which documents, day by day, which songs were worked on and which studio the work was done in for each Beatles studio session, while Beatles Gear by Andy Babiuk focuses on the instruments the Beatles used, both live and in the studio at various points in their careers. Recording The Beatles by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew is the most throughly researched and lavishly illustrated book I've ever come across on the subject, and is the most comprehensive look inside Abbey Road studios you'll find anywhere outside of London. The Beatles Complete Scores contains sheet music and tab for every song recorded by the Beatles, and is a valuable resource for musicians who are interested in learning to play their songs accurately.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.