What The Beatles Can Teach Us About Mixing Music

Updated On
12-Feb-2014
By
Ken Theriot
The Fabs

This post was originally published in 2012. But given that this month is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America and playing on the Ed Sullivan Show, I thought I would revive it this February.

I've been a student of recording and mixing for almost 3 decades. In that time the standard "rules" for mixing music have been pretty universal. If not for the fact that I got into it a mere 15 or so years after The Beatles broke up, I would have thought these mixing rules had been around forever. Certain things like panning the kick drum, bass guitar and lead vocal to the dead center of the mix (in other words, not panning them at all), and balancing the stereo field with guitars, pianos, harmonies and other instruments placed across the sound stage so we hear them spread out left-to-right, were things that "everybody knows."  But they've only known them since about 1970 or so.

But I've been listening to a lot of Beatles music in the past few weeks.  Thank you iTunes and Apple Records (no relation) for finally coming to a sane agreement to make their music available for download!  When I was a kid I didn't notice that things were a bit wonky on the records I had.  Maybe I had original recordings where they were in mono (nothing panned left or right), I really don't know.  And since my brother took all my records decades ago, I can't check - not that I am bitter.

But in listening to The Beatles these past few weeks I became acutely aware of how hard it was to listen to at times.  I mainly listened while driving in the car (..."yes I'm gonna be a star" - sorry), so when songs had all the drums panned to the left channel and a lead vocal coming from the right channel all the way over in the passenger side door, I couldn't fully enjoy the music because part of my brain was trying to hear the lead vocal and another part was freaking out about how "wrong" the mix was.

I thought I had remembered that the whole concept of stereo was new in the 1960s, at least for use in pop records, and that The Beatles were early pioneers and tried all manner of wacky mixing.  But it turns out only part of that was true - the part about stereo being new.  George Martin and crew produced everything (at least before the days of The White Album and Abbey Road ca 1968/1969) for mono, and that is the way they sound the best.  The early recordings, up until 1964, were recorded on "twin-track" tape.  So the instruments all went on one track, and the vocals went on the other.  That makes sense if two tracks is all you have.  It lets you mix it so that the vocals and instruments blend and balance properly.  Those songs were optimized for mono and how they were meant to be heard.  It wasn't until 1966 or so that George Martin and crew decided to remix a bunch of songs for stereo, without the involvement of The Beatles themselves.

So when the early recordings prior to Rubber Soul were changed for stereo, the only choice they had was to put instruments on the left channel and voices on the right, leaving a kind of sonic hole in the middle.  This sounds really odd to our post-1960s ears.  But even when they started recording on 4-tracks start with Rubber Soul, they didn't change the instruments-to-the-left and voices-to-the-right tactic except for a few exceptions where a guitar might show up in the right channel, or a harmony might be panned to the left.

Almost nobody in The Beatles' primary listening audience (teenagers) at the time owned stereo record players.  They were all listening on what they called "monaural" or "monophonic" players.  So when George Martin was experimenting with stereo mixes, he wasn't too worried about ruining anything because he knew very few people would ever actually hear the stereo versions.  But as is often the case with technology, stereos became common around 1970, so those "stereo" versions were out in the world for better or worse.  In the 1980s, George Martin did some much needed remixing to improve the stereo mixes, and they are better now.  Things are spread more evenly across the stereo sound-stage.  But he still only had 4 tracks to work with, so not every instrument or voice is on its own track.  The drums, for example, are still all mixed to the left because they were all on a single track.

All this got me thinking about how quickly things become standard and rules become universal and in some cases, inviolate.  But there were no stereo mixing rules just a few decades ago.  The things we consider to be "correct" are not age-old wisdom as I was treating them. On the one hand it's a good thing.  It makes it easy to teach people how do do things.  On the other hand, it can stifle creativity.  What seems right and proper in the audio recording industry today may turn out to be "wrong" 20 years from now.

The Beatles changed a lot of those rules in the 60s in other areas, like recording backwards music, doubling lead vocals and guitar leads, applying more treble than the engineer said was correct on Nowhere Man, and the list goes on.  So while we are recording, let's remember that rules are often made to be broken in the name of creativity.  Who knows?  You may end up writing the new rules.

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