Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
The sound design of Sgt. Pepper’s
Lonely Hearts Club Band

Michael Hannan

Although it is not a prime focus in studies of the Beatles’ music, discourse relating to their sounds, instruments and effects is nonetheless extensive. Writers interested in discussing the audio production of the Beatles’ recordings have been greatly assisted by the publication of The Beatles Recording Sessions (Lewisohn 1988b), as well as by Beatles producer George Martin’s autobiography (Martin with Hornsby 1979) and his memoir on the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band (Martin with Pearson 1994). The more recent memoir of Beatles principal sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, provides further insights into sounds and production processes (Emerick and Massey 2006). Amongst musicological researchers, Everett has paid great attention to specific instruments, sounds and mixing techniques alongside his interest in harmony and other aspects of the Beatles’ music (Everett 1999; Everett 2001). Moore’s monograph on Sgt. Pepper, although mainly focused on tonal structuring of the songs, is nonetheless attentive to timbre, instrumentation and production (Moore 1997). Studies on record production (Cunningham 1996; Moorefield 2005) invariably include short case studies of Sgt. Pepper.

The idea of sound design comes from theatre and film production where all aspects of sound (dialogue, atmospherics, music and sound effects) are used to support the narrative. As Sonnenschein puts it:

The true sound designer must be immersed in the story, characters, emotions, environments,
and genre of the film. With their contribution the audience will be led down the path in an
integrated, yet most often subconscious manner towards an experience that is authentic and
human, a metaphor for the life experience itself. Using all the tools of music, psychology,
acoustics, and drama, the art of orchestration comes into play, selecting the right sound for
the right moment. (Sonnenschein 2001, p. xix)

George Martin, whose background included doing sound design for radio and comedy records, illustrates this concept with a story about a pre-Beatles project:

Irene Handl and [Peter] Sellers did a sketch together called ‘Shadows in the Grass’, all in
the studio, with very little completed script, the basic idea being that a silly old woman
walking in the park is gradually seduced by a wily Frenchman. I edited the fifteen minutes
of their ad-libbing down to seven minutes, took out the pauses, then overdubbed things
like the crunching of feet on gravel, the faint hum of traffic in the distance, a little bit of
birdsong, a little bit of rustling of leaves. When we listened back to it, the illusion that we

-45-

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