Recently a Facebook friend of mine posted a link to a vocals-only mix of the Beatles’ 16-minute medley from the second side of their epochal swansong album, Abbey Road.
That’s right: only their vocals.
That in itself was enough to get me interested (okay, downright excited – I’m a huge Beatles fan), but listening to those vocals – in all their raw nakedness, without accompanying instrumentation – left me with some insights I never expected to get. I learned a lot more than just how the Beatles’ voices sounded sans musical accompaniment.
The first thing that really struck me was how refreshing it is to hear all of the real, human, honest-to-goodness pitch variation in their singing. Yep, there were all sorts of places where John, Paul and/or George would slide up or down into a note, not quite hit a note dead on, or be just plain out of tune.
But the most interesting thing about all those imperfect notes was how much more emotionally luring they were – especially compared to the perfectly auto-tuned and otherwise sanitized vocals on most of today’s recordings. Because they didn’t have the technology back then to remove all traces of human emotion from their vocals, their emotion shone through in all its imperfect glory, and just sucked the listener into the music.
Second, I found it fascinating that when those vocals do have the musical accompaniment – the way we all hear them as music consumers in the finished product – none of those vocal “imperfections” are discernable in any way. In fact, the blend of the vocals on Abbey Road is fabulous, and one of the things the album is praised for, even today.
This reinforced a point that I’ve been telling my production clients and recording/mixing students for years: that all musical elements need to be considered in context, the way the end listener hears them, not in isolation.
Tuning vocals (or doing any other type of “processing” on a musical part) when it’s “solo’d up” does not give you the full picture, and is bound to get you into trouble. The compression and EQ we put on a snare drum might sound killer when the snare drum is all we’re listening to, but could easily sound like crap once the rest of the drum kit – not to mention the rest of the musical parts – are brought into the mix.
Third, I was really struck by how intricate the vocal parts on Abbey Road are. I’ve always appreciated the album’s vocals in general, but I never noticed just how complex some of the vocal chords are, or how many short, clever phrases and other little vocal gems are sprinkled in among the harmonies.
That led me to realize just how much these guys really worked on their lead and harmony vocals; they didn’t just “happen” on the spot. They devoted countless hours in the studio to working, re-working and working again to get all those intricate pieces just right until they were vocal arrangements, not just vocal parts.
Every student of songwriting knows that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were masters at melodies and chord structures, but it turns out that the two of them – along with George Harrison – were also master vocal arrangers as well. And even with all their intrinsic genius, it still took them a lot of hard work to get to the final result.
Fourth, once it dawned on me just how intricate all those vocals parts were, I realized just how hard they would be for anyone to execute well. Although none of them had any formal vocal training, John, Paul and George learned to be Singers with a capital S. No wonder a few notes here and there were a little off – that shit was hard to sing! Add to that the fact that their vocals were not recorded one voice at a time, and you begin to appreciate just how brilliantly executed those parts really are.
That’s right: the Beatles didn’t enjoy the benefits of multi-track recording of vocals the way we take them for granted today: nearly all of their vocals were recorded simultaneously, with the three of them standing around a single mic, going onto a single track of tape.
It’s hard to imagine today that Abbey Road – with all of its incredible sonics that are still revered as examples of recording perfection today – was recorded using only eight tracks (the most the Beatles ever had the luxury of using). There literally wasn’t room for individual vocals to be spread out across multiple tracks; they all had to be sung together because of physical limitations of the medium. There was no faking it; they had to sing those parts for real.
This thought led me to a fifth and final revelation: that with all of the amazing recording technology at our fingertips today, we’re not necessarily better off, and don’t necessarily make better music as a result.
In fact, I would argue that the availability of so much amazing technology – and the consequent ability to manipulate virtually every last detail of anything in our music – has led us to a culture of laziness (“aw, we’ll just fix that in the mix”) and overkill (“let’s duplicate the snare drum twenty times on this song – because we can!”). Ironically, with all the auto-tuning, copying-and-pasting, and infinite tracks, the end result is a much more diluted, emotionless – more disconnected – sound on many modern recordings.
For me, some of the best “sounding” recordings today are the ones recorded on a little two-track, handheld recorder, a cell phone, or a video cam in a hotel bedroom. They lack all of the trappings that modern recording technology offers us, and as a result, connect with the listener in a much more personal way – just as John, Paul, George and Ringo did all those years ago.