Saturday, May 10, 2008

Norman Smith Talks About Balancing the Beatles

Norman Smith with the BeatlesCreating a Beatle million-selling disc is essentially a TEAM job. The Beatles themselves, of course! Recording manager George Martin. Song-publisher Dick James, who often drops in on a session to offer encouragement. And balance - and - control engineer Norman Smith . . . a backroom boy who deserves a spot of spotlight. Here goes.

First, WHO is Norman Smith? He's 42, tall, married, greying. Lives in Edmonton, North London, where he was born. Went to elementary school, then Higher Latymer Grammar School. Didn't study anything engineering in those days because he'd always been a musician. He'd started on drums at the age of seven, went on to trumpet and other brass instruments, then took up vibes

Tried for a Band Job

"I came out of the R.A.F. in 1947, did the usual round of auditions, got nowhere. Most of the plum big-band jobs had gone." Eventually he decided to try for a production job in music and jazz programmes on the B.B.C. At 23, then, he wanted to start at the bottom in the engineering business. He sampled night school classes . . . has now been with E.M.I. for seven years. Norman says he was disappointed about the general balance of music programmes . . . felt not enough was made of rhythm sections. He got his chance to improve that situation when he started working with . . . THE BEATLES.

Now let Norman talk about his association with the Liverpool foursome. In his own words, then . . .

"It was just before we recorded the Beatles on their first disc that I'd become established enough to try out my own ideas in the studio. I suppose I had a bit to do with the birth of the Mersey Sound . . . for a start we kept their recordings fairly 'dry' - I was fed up with the sound of echo chambers."

Absolute Headache

"When I first met the Beatles? Let's be honest: they didn't strike me as being a musical group. They didn't have much of a clue about sound production. In fact, they were an absolute headache. Around this time, I was trying something new. Normally, vocalists were always tucked away in a little vocal booth, away from the others. I thought this was silly - they were cut off from the excitement, the feeling.

"So I got the vocal microphones out . . . kept the four boys together. But they just weren't producing a good sound. In fact, it was a diabolical sound. But if the sound didn't impress me, what DID was their sense of humour, their sense of calm. Just call it star quality. Their simplicity is appealing. They're likeable chaps.

"That first session: it was really all John and George and Paul. Ringo had just joined and was put right at the back, being used rather like a puppet. We started talking technicalities George Martin and I and the boys tended to send us up. Actually, John Lennon calls me 'Normal' Smith. And Paul refers to me as 'Two D-B's Smith'. It means 'Decibels', a technical term. George Martin and I had talked about getting more bass from Paul . . . I'd said: 'We can't stand more than two D-B's'.

"The boys sent me a pair of gold cuff-links at Christmas . . . addressed to 'Two D-B Smith'!"

They'll Always Listen

"The Beatles soon showed they had definite ideas. But they'll always listen to somebody who has something new to offer. It really is a team, recording the Beatles. No, at that first session, we didn't know we were at the start of a phenomenon.

"When I first heard about doing a session with them, they were completely new to me. I thought to myself, 'Oh, they're probably a shaggy-dog group, wet behind the ears, a run-of-the-mill lot. But their attitude and keenness soon got rid of that idea.'

"We really did have troubles with them, though. We took a rough take of 'Love Me Do', then played it back to the boys. Their own equipment was ALL WRONG . . .

"We fixed Paul up with our own bass speaker and amplifier. Tied bits of string round John's equipment. There were crackles and pops, troubles with the cymbals. I remember thinking that we couldn't perform miracles. George Martin had a go at them, too. Anyway, after a lot of chat, George said to them: 'O.K. we've had a few criticisms to make about you - you've been very patient. Anything you're not happy with about us?"

"George Harrison eyed him. And said: 'Yes, I don't like your tie!'

"Sometimes the boys really send us up. As a matter of fact, we've recorded some of their cracks into the microphones . . . the tapes have gone into the archives at EMI. One day, I suppose, they'll be part of the history of pop music."

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