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The Beatles

November 14, 2000

A public radio commentary

George Harrision's death takes away a musical voice, but the influence of the Beatles still permeates today's music. The Beatles revolutionized the technology of making music.

Usually the opposite argument is made: That technology alone changes music. For example, Bing Crosby's quiet style of crooning could not have succeeded without the microphone. But the Beatles' work shows that at times musicians themselves can drive changes in technology.

The Beatles changed the recording studio from a place where live performances were transcribed to a workshop. Until the 1950s everyone from the singer to the orchestra crammed into a studio. They crowded around a microphone as they recorded direct to disc.

By the 1950s tape recorders changed this: The orchestra could be taped separately from the singer and then combined later. None realized the power of this more than the Beatles and their producer George Martin.

He visualized the making of a record as painting a picture in sound. It's no coincidence his favorite painters were the impressionists. The most influential technique of Martin and the Beatles - and still heard in today's music - is double-tracking.

To double track, a musician records a song twice, and then the sound engineer plays both takes together. This gives a richer more pleasing sound than a single take. The Beatles used this double tracking extensively, you can hear it clearly in one of their greatest hits. {Sound: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds} The driving force for all this double-tracking was John Lennon's desire to do anything to change his voice. On some songs he'd have it played backwards, on others he'd pass it through a rotating loud speaker to give his voice a whirling quality. But the trick he liked best was double-tracking. This though was laborious for the musicians and the engineers, but this changed after a late night recording session in 1964 when Ken Townsend, a sound engineer, had an idea. While driving home he realized he could artificially produce double tracking by feeding the singer's voice to the tape recorder twice. Townsend delayed, though, the second feed with an electronic circuit, so that it was slightly different than the first feed. This gave the effect of taping the song twice, but took, of course, only one take. It was used on all Beatles albums from 1964 on.

This technological breakthrough gave the Beatles their unique sound, but its legacy is its impact on music technology. Because other bands wanted to sound like the Beatles, equipment manufacturers designed and sold tape records that automatically including this double tracking and many other Beatles techniques - all sparked by John, Paul, Ringo and, of course, George Harrison's extraordinary recording work in the Abbey Road studios.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises