A Day In The Life - An Indepth Analysis

Recording "A Day In The Life" - Friday February 10, 1967
A Remarkable Session
Friday 10 February, 1967
Studio One: 8.00pm - 1.00am. Recording: 'A Day In The Life' orchestral buildup. P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick. 2E: Richard Lush.

There can be no doubt that 1967 was a heady year for the Beatles. And 10 February must have ranked as one of the highlights.

It was Paul who decided upon the best way of filling the 24 bar gap in 'A Day In The Life': an orchestral build-up, with perhaps 90 musicians playing from a pre-selected low note to the highest their respective instruments could play. Paul has vivid memories of this night. As usual, the task of making this vision a reality fell to George Martin. "At the very beginning I put into the musical score the lowest note each instrument could play, ending with an E-major chord. And at the beginning of each of the 24 bars I put a note showing roughly where they should be at that point. Then I had to instruct them. 'We're going to start very very quietly and end up very very loud. We're to start very low in pitch and end up very high. You've got to make your own way up there, as slide-y as possible so that the clarinets slurp, trombones gliss, violins slide without fingering any notes. And whatever you do, don't listen to the fellow next to you because I don't want you to be doing the same thing.' Of course they all looked at me as though I was mad .. The orchestra just couldn't understand what George was talking about," says Geoff Emerick, "or why they were being paid to go from one note to another in 24 bars. It didn't make any sense to them because they were all classically trained."

Studio documentation shows that 40 outside musicians were employed (39 plus one percussionist).The total cost of the musicians was £367 10s, quite an investment. "It was quite a chaotic session," recalls Alan Civil. "Such a big orchestra, playing with very little music. And the Beatle chaps were wandering around with rather expensive cameras, like new toys, photographing everything.

actual studio documentation

Although only 40 musicians were used instead of 90, Paul McCartney got more than he originally requested because the orchestra was recorded four times, on all four-tracks of a tape, and this was then mixed down to one. So he had the equivalent of 160 musicians. It was clear before the session even began that there might be technical problems and Ken Townsend felt a new invention coming on. "George Martin came up to me that morning and said to me 'Oh Ken, I've got a poser for you. I want to run two four-track tape machines together this evening. I know it's never been done before, can you do it?' So I went away and came up with a method whereby we fed a 50 cycle tone from the track of one machine then raised its voltage to drive the capstan motor of the second, thus running the two in sync. Like all these things, the ideas either work first time or not at all. This one worked first time. At the session we ran the Beatles' rhythm track on one machine, put an orchestral track on the second machine, ran it back did it again, and again, and again until we had four orchestra recordings. The only problem arose sometime later when George and I were doing a mix with two different machines. One of them was sluggish in starting up and we couldn't get the damn things into sync. George got quite annoyed with me actually." George is more forgiving today: "The synchronisation was rather a hit-and-miss affair and the orchestra is slightly out of time in places, but it doesn't matter.

George Martin and Paul McCartney conducted the orchestra, leaving Geoff Emerick to get the sounds down on tape in the correct manner. "It was only by careful fader manipulation that I was able to get the crescendo of the orchestra at the right time. I was gradually bringing it up, my technique being slightly psychological in that I'd bring it up to a point and then slightly fade it back in level without the listener being able to discern this was happening, and then I'd have about 4 dBs in hand at the end. It wouldn't have worked if I'd just shoved the level up to start with.

The recording was made using the unique ambiophonics' system of the massive Abbey Road Studio One, whereby 100 loudspeakers, fitted symmetrically to all four walls, artificially tailor the acoustics by feeding signals delayed at different intervals, the resulting sound being called ambiophony.

But the technical aspects of the recording tell only half the story. The session was more than anything else an el-ent. "The Beatles asked me, and the musicians, to wear full evening dress, which we did," recalls George Martin. "I left the studio at one point and came back to find one of the musicians, David McCallum, wearing a red clown's nose and Erich Gruenberg, leader of the violins, wearing a gorilia s paw on is bow hand. Everyone was wearing funny hats and carnival novelties. I just fell around laughing!" "I remember that they stuck balloons onto the ends of the two bassoons," says violinist Sidney Sax. "They went up and down as the instruments were played an they filled with air!"
Listen to the 2nd orchestral buildup leading up to the crashing piano chord.

"Only the Beatles could have assembled a studio full of musicians, many from the Royal Philharmonic or the London Symphony orchestras, all wearing funny hats, red noses, balloons on their bows and putting up with headphones clipped around their Stradivari violins acting as microphones," jokes Peter Vince, who - like many of the Abbey Road engineers - attended as a spectator and was highly impressed with what he saw. Tony Clark didn't even bother to go inside the studio; by just standing outside the door he could feel the excitement. "I was speechless, the tempo changes - everything in that song - was just so dramatic and complete. I felt so privileged to be there ... I walked out of the Abbey Road that night thinking 'What am I going to do now?' It really did affect me." Malcolm Davies recalls Ron Richards sitting in the corner of the control room with his head in his hands, saying "I just can't believe it ... I give up". "He was producing the Hollies," says Davies, "and I think he knew that the Beatles were just uncatchable. It blew him away..."

As Alan Civil noted, the entire session was filmed. In early 1967 the weekly pop music newspapers regulary reported the Beatles' plan to make a television special about the making of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It never happened, but the footage shot on this night was to have been the start and it duly captured the craziness of the evening, making for a compelling if chaotic, little film, with all of the musicians in evening dress, everyone - including John Lennon - wearing silly novelties like upside down spectacles, plastic stick-on nipples, imitation bald heads, red noses, false eyes, fake cigars and knotted handkerchiefs on heads. It also shows George's wife Pattie Harrison and the many friends especially invited along by the Beatles - among them Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richard, Mike Nesmith, Donovan and Simon and Marijke of designers the Fool. [Marijke played a tambourine during the orchestral overdub which appeared on the final record.] It shows girl fans being ejected by Nell Aspinall and bubbles floating around the expanse of studio one. Tony Bramwell, an employee of Brian Epstein's NEMS company and in charge of the shooting, remembers the outcome. "It never got shown because the BBC banned the song, thinking it related to drugs. But the party idea was picked up again for the 'All You Need Is Love' broadcast."

It would almost be superfluous to state that the original tapes of the night's work are immensely absorbing. But they are revealing too, showing how - when the orchestra had packed up and gone home - the Beatles and various friends (at least one female voice is evident) gathered around the studio microphone and attempted to record the song's coda - later a crashing piano chord - which at this stage was going to be a long 'hummmmmm'. "Eight beats, remember" says Paul, leading them into the first take of this edit piece. This and two others (numbered eight to ten) dissolved, understandably, into laughter. But take 11 was good so onto this the ensemble recorded three overdubs, filling the four-track tape. It was undoubtedly a fine idea, and it was to remain the best solution to ending the song until the famous piano chord was recorded on 22 February.

The tapes also reveal how, at the end of the orchestra's tremendous 33 1/2 second build-up near the end of the song, everyone in the studio broke into a spontaneous barrage of applause. This, too, makes for remarkable listening. It must have been a remarkable night in all ways, best summed up by George Martin. "When we'd finished doing the orchestral bit one part of me said 'We're being a bit self-indulgent here'. The other part of me said 'It's bloody marvellous!'

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