The Beatles Sgt Pepper: The Album that Changed Music
This month is the anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sgt. Pepper was recorded at Abbey Road studios between November 1966 and April 1967 . It was recorded on 4-track, 2-track and mono machines, which ironically were fairly outdated compared to the recording equipment bands in the US were recording and high end production studios were equipped with.
Using Abbey Road Studios, London in 1967, all of the Sgt. Pepper tracks would be recorded using mono, stereo and four-track recorders. Although the Beatles by then were already Rock and Roll Legends; Eight-track tape recorders were already available in the US, but not in studios in London until late 1967, after the album was released which meant many of the tricks they used to record Pepper would have been completely unnecessary and unneeded had they had access to the Eight-track recorder.
To make a recording like this they had to make extensive use of the technique known as “bouncing down” , in which a number of tracks were recorded across the four tracks of one recorder, which were then mixed and dubbed down onto one or several tracks of the master four-track machine. This is very difficult because you’re making mixing decisions as you record, and before adding new parts. I compare it to painting with watercolors. This technique also added tape noise to the final mix.
This album created new recording techniques that are still used today like ADT, short for automatic double tracking, which allowed for vocals to be doubled by using the machine instead of the singer having to sing it twice. They also used the machine to varispeed the vocals,a technique of recording various tracks on a multi-track tape at slightly different tape speeds. There are many differences between the Sgt Pepper Mono mix and the Stereo mix, on “When I’m 64” specifically there are some versions with Paul’s vocal clearly in a higher register. This led to other advances such as “phasing” and “flanging” of vocals and other sounds. One other new method used was running vocals thru a leslie speaker, the speaker on B-3 organs that give that spinning sound, also relatively new effects units were used, like the wah-wah petal and fuzztone/box.
All of the effects and experiments in production, along with the differences between the Mono and Stereo mixes has led to a lot of debate over which version is the superior, although John Lennon himself said “You haven’t heard Pepper until you have heard it Mono.”
Sgt. Peppers changed music production forever.
Maybe one of the best headphone albums of all time. Ironic as well to think the Mono version has far more nuances than the stereo version. Much like Abbey Road, its hard to think there would have been a Pink Floyd Dark Side and other conceptual masterpieces without this stepping stone.