As was usually the case in The Beatles recording history, the first song to be tackled for a new album was a Lennon creation. April 6th, 1966 was that first session for what became the “Revolver” album, the session beginning at 8 pm in EMI Studio Three.
One noteworthy new element in the mix on this day was the use of 20-year-old Geoff Emerick as primary engineer. Norman Smith had been The Beatles engineer for the vast majority of their sessions up to this point but, because of his promotion to producer (new band Pink Floyd being one of his first artists), advantage was taken to get some "young blood" in the studio to help satisfy The Beatles’ cravings for innovations in the recording process. Having worked with them on various occasions in the past as 2nd engineer, the group was somewhat familiar with him personally. His new role as primary engineer would test his creativity and ultimately win them over as one who could fulfill their quest for expanding their sonic landscape.
Being such a landmark day in his career, Geoff Emerick remembers the events of this day with exceptional clarity, his book “Here, There And Everywhere” giving amazing detail and is a must read to get a full picture, highlights of which I’ll include here. “John was deep in discussion with George Martin,” Emerick relates, “clearly the first song we were going to be working on was one of his. He had no title for it at the time, so the tape box was simply labeled 'Mark I.'” He apparently later had misgivings about using the title “The Void” as roadie Neil Aspinall leaked to the world through the group’s monthly fan magazine.
Emerick continues: “’This one’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done before,’ John was saying to George Martin. ‘It’s only got the one chord, and the whole thing is meant to be like a drone.’…My ears perked up when I heard John’s final direction to George: ‘…and I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.’”
George Martin remembers: “So, I thought, ‘I wonder what time the next plane is to Tibet.’ But, I thought, that was one way of doing it.” Geoff Emerick continues, “George Martin looked over at me with a nod and he reassured John. ‘Got it. I’m sure Geoff and I will come up with something.’ Which meant, of course, that he was sure Geoff would come up with something. I looked around the room in a panic. I thought I had a vague idea of what John wanted, but I had no clear sense of how to achieve it.”
“Fortunately, I had a little time to think about it, because John decided to start the recording process by having me make a loop of him playing a simple guitar figure, with Ringo accompanying him on drums…Because John wanted a thunderous sound, the decision was made to play the part at a fast tempo and then slow the tape down on playback: this would serve not only to return the tempo to the desired speed but also to make the guitar and drums – and the reverb they were drenched in – sound otherworldly.” Paul also experimented with playing some piano on the song which got caught on tape, although it was decided not to be appropriate for the song…at least at this point.
“The studio’s Hammond organ was hooked up to a system called a Leslie – a large wooden box that contained an amp and two sets of revolving speakers,” Geoff continues, “one that carried low bass frequencies and the other that carried high treble frequencies…nobody had ever put a vocal through it…’I think I have an idea about what to do for John’s voice,’ I announced to George in the control room as we finished editing the loop. Excitedly, I explained my concept to him. Though his brows furrowed for a moment, he nodded his assent. Then he went out into the studio and told the four Beatles, who were standing around impatiently waiting for the loop to be constructed, to take a tea break while ‘Geoff sorts out something for the vocal.’”
After the required wiring was complete, two microphones were placed near the speakers and tests were run. The Beatles were then informed that they were ready to give it a try. “John settled behind the mic and Ringo behind his kit, ready to overdub vocals and drums on top of the recorded loop,” Emerick continues. “Paul and George Harrison headed up to the control room. Once everyone was in place and ready to go, George Martin got on the talkback mic: ‘Stand by…here it comes.’ Then Phil (McDonald) started the loop playing back. Ringo began playing along, hitting the drums with a fury, and John began singing, eyes closed, head back.”
“’Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…’ Lennon’s voice sounded like it never had before, eerily disconnected, distant yet compelling. The effect seemed to perfectly complement the esoteric lyrics he was chanting. Everyone in the control room…looked stunned. Through the glass we could see John begin smiling. At the end of the first verse, he gave an exuberant thumbs-up and McCartney and Harrison began slapping each other on the back. ‘It’s the Dalai Lennon!’ Paul shouted…’That is bloody marvelous,’ (John) kept saying over and over again.”
“John was so impressed by the sound of a Leslie that he hit upon the reverse idea,” Emerick recalls in the book “The Beatles Recording Sessions.” “He suggested we suspend him from a rope in the middle of the studio ceiling, put a mike in the middle of the floor, give him a push and he’d sing as he went around and around. That was one idea that didn’t come off although they were always said to be ‘looking into it’!”
The above description, the guitar/drum tape loop with overdubbed drums and lead vocal, is what was referred to as ‘take one,’ this appearing on the 1996 release “Anthology 2,” George Martin’s voice on the talkback mic and all. This historic recording was eagerly anticipated by most fans upon its eventual release, being cited in Mark Lewisohn’s “The Beatles Recording Sessions” as “a sensational, apocalyptic version…a heavy metal recording of enormous proportion, with thundering echo and booming, quivering, ocean-bed vibrations.” But, with the overdubbed vocals and drumming getting hopelessly out of sync with the pre-recorded tape loop, a decision was made to start from scratch. They, of course, were anxious to keep the Leslie vocal effect for the finished product.
"Now, that's alternative! That's cool!", Paul explaimed while listening to a playback of this early version of the song during his 2021 Hulu documentary series "McCartney 3,2,1." "Pretty stones, if you ask me! As time went on we had much more freedom. We had much longer to do things. But it actually spurred us on to do some new stuff, so the drum sound on this is, I love it! It's a really great Ringo sound."
With the juices flowing, they immediately began to come up with more ideas. “I’d imagined, in my head, that in the background you could hear thousands of monks chanting,” Lennon explained in 1967. “That was impractical, of course, and we did something different. I should have tried to get near my original idea, the monks singing. I realize now that was what I wanted.”
More ideas were flowing at this point. “While they were listening to the first playback,” Emerick continues, “John and George Harrison had been excitedly discussing ideas for guitar parts. Harrison eagerly suggested that a tamboura – one of his new collection of Indian instruments – be added. ‘It’s perfect for this track, John,’ he was explaining in his deadpan monotone. ‘It’s just kind of a droning sound and I think it will make the whole thing quite Eastern.’ Lennon was nodding his head. You could tell he liked the idea.”
“But my attention was drawn to Paul and Ringo, who were huddled together talking about the drumming…Paul was suggesting that ‘Ring’ (as we usually called him) add a little skip to the basic beat he was playing. The pattern he was tapping out on the mixing console was somewhat reminiscent of the one Ringo had played on their recent hit single ‘Ticket To Ride.’ Ringo said little, but listened intently…he was used to taking direction from the others.”
With the intention of creating a new sound for Beatles recordings, following the earlier admonition from John about the song being “completely different than anything we’ve ever done before,” Geoff Emerick decided to break standard EMI procedures and mic the drums differently. “Without saying a word, I quietly slipped out to the studio and moved both the snare drum mic and the single overhead mic in close. But before I also moved the microphone that was aimed at Ringo’s bass drum, there was something else I wanted to try, because I felt that the bass drum was ringing too much…Sitting atop one of the instrument cases was an old woolen sweater – one which had been specially knitted with eight arms to promote the group’s recent film, which was originally called ‘Eight Arms To Hold You’…I removed the bass drum’s front skin – the one with the famous ‘dropped-T’ Beatles logo on it – and stuffed the sweater inside so that it was flush against the rear beater skin. Then I replaced the front skin and positioned the bass drum mic directly in front of it, angled down slightly but so close that it was almost touching.”
Shortly afterwards, “take two” began. “’Ready John?’ asked Martin. A nod from Lennon signaled that he was about to begin his count-in, so I instructed (2nd engineer) Phil McDonald to roll tape. ‘…two, three, four,’ intoned John, and then Ringo entered with a furious cymbal crash and bass drum hit. It sounded magnificent! Thirty seconds in, someone in the band made a mistake, though, and they all stopped playing…I quickly announced ‘take three’ on the talkback microphone and the group began playing the song again, perfectly this time around.”
“’I think we’ve got it,’ John announced excitedly after the last note dies away. George Martin waved everyone into the control room to hear the playback…’What on earth did you do to my drums?’ Ringo was asking me. ‘They sound fantastic!’ Paul and John began whooping it up, and even the normally dour George Harrison was smiling broadly. ‘That’s the one, boys,’ George Martin agreed, nodding in my direction.”
So ended the recording session for the night, the rhythm track being completed which consisted of Ringo on drums, George on guitar, Paul on bass and John on vocals. His vocals were sung in the conventional single-tracked manner for the first three lyrical phrases of the song and then through the rotating Leslie speaker for the remainder. All overdubs were left over for the following session on the next day. However, before this session ended at 1:15 am, an assignment of sorts was given to each of the group to prepare for the next days’ recording session.
“Everybody went home and made up a spool, a loop,” explains George Harrison. "’OK, class, now I want you all to go home and come back in the morning with your own loop.’ We were touching on the Stockhausen kind of ‘avant garde a clue’ music."
"You know that you could talk to George about these things," Paul explained in his "McCartney 3,2,1" documentary. "'George, what if we played it backwards and then what if we did that?' 'Well...' and he'd sort of would go along with it. Because a lot of other producers on EMI, I'm sure they would have just said, 'Another time, let's get the record done,' y'know, and wouldn't have been interested in backwards noises or tape loops. I had an old tape recorded that you could put, make a loop instead of the two reels of tape. You could (make) a little loop that would go round and round and round. There's a little button that says, 'superimpose.' It keeps recording forever and ever and ever and ever. Now, once you've gone 'round, what was there is still there but it's now going in the background a bit. It's a bit of an art because you've got to know when to stop...you gotta sort of stop soon because you're gonna wipe out those original ideas."”
“It was Paul, actually, who experimented with his tape machine at home,” remembers George Martin, “taking the erase-head off and putting on loops, saturating the tape with weird sounds. He explained to the other boys how he had done this and Ringo and George would do the same and bring me different loops of sounds, and I would listen to them at various speeds, backwards and forwards, and select some.”
“I was into tape loops at the time,” explains Paul. “I had two Brennell machines and I could create tape loops with them...I used to get a lot of seagulls in my loops; a speeded-up shout, hah ha, goes squawk squawk. And I always get pictures of seasides, of Torquay, the Torbay Inn, fishing boats and puffins and deep purple mountains. Those were the slowed-down ones.”
“So we made up our little loops and brought them to the studio,” George Harrison continues. “Those ‘seagulls’ were just weird noises. I don’t exactly recall what was on my loop. I think it was a grandfather clock, but at a different speed. You could do it with anything: pick a little piece and then edit it, connect it up to itself and play it at a different speed.”
Even Ringo got in on the act. “I had my own little set-up to record them. As George says, we were ‘drinking a lot of tea’ in those days, and on all my tapes you can hear, ‘Oh, I hope I’ve switched it on.’ I’d get so deranged from strong tea. I’d sit there for hours making those noises.”
Geoff Emerick explains the process of making these loops in a little more detail: “Paul…had discovered that the erase head could be removed, which allowed new sounds to be added to the existing ones each time the tape passed over the record head. Because of the primitive technology of the time, the tape quickly became saturated with sound and distorted, but it was an effect that appealed to the four of them as they conducted sonic experiments in their respective homes.”
At 2:30 pm the following day, April 7th, 1966, the group entered EMI Studio Three once again armed and ready to add numerous overdubs to the previous day's rhythm track. “Paul had gone home and sat up all night creating a whole series of short tape loops specifically for the song,” Emerick continues, “which he dutifully presented to me in a little plastic bag when he returned for the next day’s session. We began the second evening’s work by having Phil McDonald carefully thread each loop onto the tape machine, one at a time, so that we could audition them. Paul had assembled an extraordinary collection of bizarre sounds, which included his playing distorted guitar and bass, as well as wineglasses ringing and other indecipherable noises. We played them every conceivable way: proper speed, sped up, slowed down, backwards, forwards. Every now and then, one of The Beatles would shout, ‘That’s a good one,’ as we played through the lot. Eventually five of the loops were selected to be added to the basic backing track.”
According to Ian MacDonald’s book “Revolution In The Head,” the five loops, numbered according to their first appearance in the song, can be identified as follows: “(1) a ‘seagull’/’Red Indian’ effect (actually McCartney laughing) made, like most of the other loops, by superimposition and acceleration (0:07); (2) an orchestral chord of B flat major (0:19); (3) a Mellotron played on its flute setting (0:22); (4) another Mellotron oscillating in 6/8 from B flat to C on its string setting (0:38) and (5) a rising scalar phrase on a sitar, recorded with heavy saturation and acceleration (0:56).” Since the fifth of these loops was made on a sitar, we can rightfully assume that this was the creation of George Harrison, debunking the credit from Geoff Emerick to McCartney of supplying all of the loops used on the song. Or, as some claim, this sitar-like phrase may have been played on the guitar and could possibly have also been recorded and supplied by Paul. However, neither the “wineglasses” loop nor the "grandfather clock" loop was deemed good enough to make the final cut.
Then came the dilemma of inserting these loops into the master recording. “We had six fellows with pencils holding them on, on six machines. Very desirable, the whole effect, I thought,” explained John back in 1966. Paul adds: “We got machines from all the other studios, and with pencils and the aid of glasses got all the loops to run. We might have had twelve recording machines where we normally only needed one to make a record. We were running with those loops all fed through the recording desk.”
“Fortunately, there were plenty of other machines in the Abbey Road complex,” Geoff Emerick relates, “all interconnected via wiring in the walls, and all the other studios just happened to be empty that afternoon. What followed next was a scene that could have come out a science fiction movie – or a Monty Python sketch. Every tape machine in every studio was commandeered and every available EMI employee was given the task of holding a pencil or drinking glass to give the loops the proper tensioning. In many instances, this meant they had to be standing out in the hallway, looking quite sheepish. Most of those people didn’t have a clue what we were doing; they probably thought we were daft…add in the fact that all of the technical staff were required to wear white lab coats, and the whole thing became totally surreal.”
“Meanwhile, back in the control room, George Martin and I huddled over the console, raising and lowering faders to shouted instructions from John, Paul, George and Ringo. (‘Let’s have that seagull sound now!’...) With each fader carrying a different loop, the mixing desk acted like a synthesizer, and we played it like a musical instrument, too, carefully overdubbing textures to the prerecorded backing track. Finally we completed the task to the band’s satisfaction, the white-coated technicians were freed from their labors, and Paul’s loops were retured back to the plastic bag, never to be played again.”
Although John didn’t get his chanting monks, he did get something else he wanted on this day. “We were always asking George Martin, ‘Please give us double tracking without having to track it – save time,’” recalls Lennon. “And then one of the engineers who was working with us came in the next day with this machine. We’d got ADT – and that was beautiful.” Ken Townsend was that maintenance engineer, who later explained: “They often liked to double-track their vocals but it’s quite a laborious process and they soon got fed up with it. So after one particularly trying night-time session doing just that, I was driving home and I suddenly had an idea…”
His idea was “Artificial Double Tracking” (or ADT for short). The book “The Beatles Recording Sessions” explains: “ADT is a process whereby a recording signal is taken from the playback head of a tape machine, is recorded onto a separate machine which has a variable oscillator (enabling the speed to be altered) and then fed back into the first machine to be combined with the original signal…One voice laid perfectly on top of another produces one image. But move the second voice by just a few milli-seconds and two separate images emerge.” Almost all of the tracks on “Revolver” utilized ADT, “Tomorrow Never Knows” being one of them. John’s conventionally recorded vocal in the first half of the song, as recorded the previous day, had ADT applied to it, this being the first time it was used in recording history.
More overdubs were added as well. Ringo overdubbed a tambourine throughout a good portion of the song, John double-tracked his vocal despite ADT having already been applied to it (probably just force of habit), and an organ, which is attributed by many sources to having been played by Lennon. George Harrison explains the purpose of the organ overdub: “Indian music doesn’t modulate, it just stays. You pick what key you’re in, and it stays in that key. I think ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was the first one that stayed there, the whole song was on one chord. But there is a chord that is superimposed on top that does change: if it was in C, it changes down to B flat. That was like an overdub, but the basic sound all hangs on the one drone.”
The overdubbed organ plays this B flat chord in the fifth and sixth measures of most of the verses (for instance, during the lyrics “It is not dyinnnng…”) and then it plays a C chord during the seventh and (sometimes) eighth measures to return to the droning home key of the song. This is added to the dissonant wail of the “orchestral chord” loop that also appears during the sixth and seventh measure of most verses. The coupling of these two elements simultaneously produces the desired effect, something similar also being added to George’s song “Love You To” a few days later. At 7:15 pm, after nearly five hours of history being made, the group took an hour break before beginning work on a new McCartney composition entitled “Got To Get You Into My Life.” “Mark I,” as “Tomorrow Never Knows” was still referred to as, still had finishing touches to be made to it at a later date.
This later date, after work on seven more songs transpired, was April 22nd, 1966. They entered EMI Studio Two at 2:30 pm and began the session adding overdubs to George’s second composition for “Revolver,” namely “Taxman,” and then resumed work on “Mark I” at around 7:30 pm. It appears that the primary overdub on this day concerned George Harrison.
“George Harrison showed up with the tamboura he had so eagerly talked of during the first night’s session,” recalls Geoff Emerick. “Actually, he’d been talking about it almost nonstop since then, so everyone was really curious to see the thing. He staggered into the studio under its weight – it’s a huge instrument, and the case was the size of a small coffin – and brought it out with a grand gesture, displaying it proudly as we gathered around.”
“’What do you think to that, then”’ he asked everyone in sight. Not willing to trust his precious cargo to either of the two roadies, he had actually stuffed the tamboura case in the backseat of one of his Porsches, which he parked right in front of the main entrance so he could carry the instrument by hand up the steps…Having seen how well Paul’s loops had worked, George wanted to contribute one of his own, so I recorded him playing a single note on the huge instrument – again using a close-miking technique – and turned it into a loop. It ended up becoming the sound that opens the track.”
John also apparently re-recorded his Leslie-speaker vocal part that ends the song on this day, but another interesting overdub was also recorded. The five loops were to act as the “solo” of the song but, after more listening; a decision was made to spruce it up a little more. The first four measures of the solo section premiered the tamboura loop, but afterwards they spliced in something that was recorded the previous day. According to “Revolution In The Head,” “The second half of the instrumental break consists of parts of McCartney’s guitar solo for ‘Taxman’ slowed down a tone, cut up, and run backwards…The tell-tale octave leap on D of the ‘Taxman’ solo can be heard on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (reversed and transposed down to C) at 1:15.”
There was one final touch added to complete the song. “Another sonic component,” Geoff explains, “the little bit of tack piano at the end was a fluke. It actually came from a trial we did on the first take, when the group were just putting ideas down, but Paul heard it during one of the playbacks and suggested that we fly it into the fadeout, and it worked perfectly.” With this complete by 11:30 pm, the song was deemed acceptable to all and was destined for mixing in the near future.
According to the liner notes of the remastered 2009 compact disc release of “Revolver,” the master four-track tape contains the following components: “Drums, bass and guitar were sent to track one; the sounds of tape loops were on two; a double-track vocal, tambourine, organ and backwards guitar were on three; and four had the lead vocal and a sitar (actually, tamboura).”
The mono mix that was released to the world was made just five days later on April 27th, 1966 in the control room of EMI Studio Three by George Martin, Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald. Still using the title “Mark I,” nine mono mixes of the song were made on this day, mix eight being the released version. Generally, the effect loops, which are all on track two of the master tape, are faded up and down without much transition while the backward guitar solo sounds highly processed.
On May 16th, 1966, tape copying of finished “Revolver” tracks was done to assemble a master reel. This was done in the control room of EMI Studio Two by the same EMI team using mono mix eight as performed on April 27th.
On June 6th, 1966, another crack was made at a mono mix for “Tomorrow Never Knows,” as the song was finally decided to be called. The same EMI team assembled in the control room of EMI Studio Three for this procedure which also produced more usable mono mixes of other tracks for the album. Three more attempts at a mono mix for the song were made (ten through twelve), mix eleven being deemed best. Interestingly, even though this new mono mix was cut-out for the master tape of the album, a phone call was made on the day that the album went to the cutting room (July 14th) from George Martin to engineer Geoff Emerick. He decided that “mix eight,” made on April 27th, was better after all and should be used on the mono album.
However, the phone call must have came a little too late because the very first pressing of the British album contained “mix eleven,” which is markedly different and therefore quite rare today. Noticeable differences include the vocals being somewhat more prominent in the mix, the backward guitar solo not having the “processed” sound and missing the final guitar phrase, and the piano fade-out being noticeably longer. This rare first pressing has the matrix code “XEX 606-1” pressed in the run-out groove of side two of the album, whereas later pressings have “606-2” or “606-3.”
The stereo mix of the song was made on the final day of work on the “Revolver” album, namely June 22nd, 1966. Martin, Emerick and 2nd engineer Jerry Boys put together the final mixes for the album, one of the six stereo mixes made on this day being the released stereo version. The loop effects are faded in more gradually throughout the mix while a curious feedback sound is heard when John’s Leslie vocals come in with the words “that love is all.”
The original rhythm track of drums, guitar, bass and vocals, along with the tamboura loop, are centered in the mix, while the effect loops are heard primarily in the left channel except for the first four measures of the instrumental section of the song when the loops are centered. (Note that the #4 loop, the oscillating Mellotron, is centered in the mix for a split second before it is hurriedly panned back to the left channel.) Track three of the master tape, which contains the tambourine, organ, double-tracked vocal, backwards guitar solo and piano ending, is exclusively on the right channel.