How The Beatles Rocked Technology

Today's home music makers using Apple's Garage Band have geometrically more advanced technology than The Beatles did in 1966-67 at Abbey Road, Studio Two.
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ICYMI (he acronymed sarcastically), this week marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' landing in the U.S. and their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, upturning world culture and igniting what we now recognize as "The Sixties."

While The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, Sir Paul McCartney continues to rock stadiums and arenas worldwide. I've seen him six times since 1975, most recently at Brooklyn's Barclay Center last summer; prior to that, it was Yankee Stadium in the summer of 2011, and before that at CitiField in 2009.

First of all, wow.

While beholding the wonder of a 68-/70-/71-year-old performing a vigorous two-and-a-half hour show without a break or even a drink of water with nary a crack in that famous tenor, I got to thinking about the technology that makes the modern music business possible -- and the role The Beatles played in inspiring and/or instigating that technology.

Off the Road Again

Among the reasons The Beatles stopped touring in August 1966 was the lack of technology to re-create on stage the music they were constructing in the studio.

Just consider the difficulties in playing tracks from Revolver, which had come out a few weeks before their last concert: were they going to schlep along a string octet just to perform "Eleanor Rigby" or a horn section just for "Got To Get You Into My Life"? How would they reproduce all the nautical sounds in "Yellow Submarine"? And how in tarnation would you even approach "playing" the double-tracking and swirling sound effects throughout "Tomorrow Never Knows"?

How The Beatles created and tried to reproduce their increasingly sophisticated musical palette would forever change how music is made and how we hear it.

Do You Hear Yourself?

Check out the speaker array The Beatles used at the first-ever stadium rock show, their August 15, 1965 Shea Stadium concert, in this video of "Help."

Those 100-watt amplified VOX speakers behind them, as well as the tall, skinny yellow speakers ringing the field, supplemented the inadequate delay-plagued stadium PA system and constituted the entire awful sound system. No wonder John was pleading for aid.

The Beatles' need to hear themselves on stage inspired rock groups to adopt what was then a new idea -- stage monitors, small speakers facing the performers to let them hear what they were playing.

Three days later at their concert in Atlanta, a local audio company set up stage monitors for the band for the first time, alerting them to the potential of the innovation.

Stage monitors -- as well as the earphones you see many performers wear during live shows -- have became de rigueur for performers on stage ever since, screaming girls or not.

All You Need Is Ears

Even though they were off the road, The Beatles were still technologically constrained in the studio. The state-of-the-art in the studio was four-track recording, barely a Model T compared to today's Maserati-like studio gear.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded on just such stone knives and bear skins four-track recording gear. The boys would record four tracks and mix them down to make one track, they would then record four more tracks and mix those to create another single track than combine those two four-into-one tracks to make another single track, and so on and so on.

Beatles producer Sir George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick performed musical legerdemain to preserve if not enhance the fidelity through this laborious layering process necessary to make Sgt. Pepper the sonic and artistic masterpiece it is, and paved the way for every other band with pretensions to move beyond live-to-tape rock recording.

Today's home music makers using Apple's Garage Band have geometrically more advanced technology than The Beatles did in 1966-67 at Abbey Road, Studio Two. Not coincidentally, the name of the software and the eponymous phenomena itself is a direct homage to the generation of kids who grabbed an instrument and secured themselves in their home's carport dreaming of becoming rock 'n' roll stars themselves after seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

And now that I think on it, The Beatles were a direct influence on the co-founder and the naming of the company behind Garage Band, the largest and most influential technology company in the world.

From Studio to Stage

One of the thrills of seeing Sir Paul play life is hearing songs The Beatles never performed live.

It wasn't until the 1980s, after the invention of the synthesizer by Robert Moog and, later, synthesized music systems by Ray Kurzweil, could songs from those post-1966 Beatles' records be replicated live by their originator.

Among the songs Sir Paul has performed of late is "A Day in the Life," complete with the instrumental crescendos that both separate his "Woke up, got out of bed..." bridge from John's "I read the news today..." lyric and close the song and the album.

Without assembling a live orchestra, performing this song effectively live would be impossible without modern synthesizer technology. Paul "Wix" Wickens, Sir Paul's keyboardist, uses a Yamaha Motif ES7 synthesizer, a Kurzweil controller and a rack of processors to recreate live what it took months at Abbey Road Studios to produce.

So thanks to technology inspired, if not pioneered, by The Beatles, we can finally enjoy live performances of the seminal music of our time.

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