Record producer, sound engineer, arranger, composer, conductor, musician and also the ‘Fifth Beatle’.
In our segment, Worlds Greatest Sound Engineers we feature the man behind the recordings for artists like Elton John, Celine Dion, Kenny Rogers, Jeff Beck, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Sting and also credited for shaping the sound of The Beatles, Sir George Martin.
Martin was extensively involved in most of the music the Beatles recorded in the 1960s, leading to him often being named the ‘fifth Beatle.’
Born in the mid-1920s, Martin took an affinity to music quite early in life. A disagreement with his piano teacher led Martin to learn the piano on his own. As a teenager he formed his band, George Martin & the Four Tune Tellers, and later graduated from the Guildhall School of Music where he studied composition, orchestration and performance on the oboe and piano.
After graduation he worked for the BBC’s classical music department and would later join EMI’s Parlophone label in 1950. He was promoted as the head of the label in 1955, at the age of just 29, and worked with artists like Judy Garland and jazz stars Stan Getz, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth.
“I have always regarded technology as a tool”
– George Martin
The studio itself became an instrument, an essential part of music-making for Martin. He was a genius and would lord over the instrument i.e. the studio. Martin knew the intricacies of his art and could mentally connect with every artist.
Martin had a team of very talented and dedicated technicians, like Alan Parsons, for his studio work. He would get them out of their comfort zones and stretch their artistic horizons. The traditional recording techniques were flipped and unconventional ones found their way into the studio. The use of microphones was modified to suit every song and multi-track techniques were used extensively.
The Beatles and their fifth member
After all other major labels had turned the group down, Martin signed the Fab Four to the Parlophone record label in 1962. Their partnership resulted with Martin working closely with the band on every aspect, be it recording, arranging, writing and even producing. He produced all but one of their albums.
His influence on shaping the future of the Beatles began right at the start. Martin replaced the original drummer Pete Best with Ringo Starr. Their collaborations led to some of the band’s biggest hits, including ‘She Loves You,’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Love Me Do.’
Martin developed their style and was instrumental in them experimenting with sound. While donning an arranger’s role, he incorporated instruments like strings and trumpets into what was essentially a rock n roll sound. In the late 1960s, he worked with them to develop the psychedelic rock genre which resulted in hit albums like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Yellow Submarine.’
A Scientist in the Studio
More than an engineer, arranger or producer, Martin viewed the studio like a science experiment. Martin’s brilliance was in the techniques that he and his team developed. His penchant for R&D resulted in the Beatles’ records becoming more experimental. He made use of backward recordings, spliced collages, artificially doubled vocals and instruments sped up or slowed down.
This concept was new in the early days of the Beatles. Most of their earlier albums were recorded using two track machines, EMI’s own British Tape Recorders (BTR) and released using monophonic sound reproduction (mono) technique.
Stereo technology existed in the 1960s but was seldom used. The band’s later albums, ‘Yellow Submarine,’ ‘Abbey Road,’ and ‘Let It Be,’ were released in a stereo mix which highlighted Martin’s studio production and engineering techniques.
By 1963, the first four-track machines were in use, and this made it easier to perform “overdubs” on recordings. Overdubs were used to add string arrangements. Martin, as an engineer and producer, had an eye for the technology and pushed this innovation in the studio for all the orchestration he incorporated.
Along with a penchant for perfectionist, innovation and improvised techniques, Martin was hailed as a trickster. He knew a few tricks for integrating such techniques into production.
While recording for the song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ John Lennon wanted circus music, mostly atmospheric sound, with organ in the background of the song. Martin took the tape of a recording of something similar to what Lennon wanted and cut it into lots of little pieces, randomly pasting them back together. When that sounded like a familiar piece, so they cut it into even smaller pieces. Then moved them around until a kind of sound collage came into being.
Sir George Martin passed away on 8 March 2016. Like the sound he produced and engineered, the best way to sum up his life would be in his words.
“I have had a bloody good innings. I can’t imagine anyone who’s been luckier than I have with the kind of artists I’ve been able to record.”