Producer/Engineer Lifetime Achievement Award: Richard Lush
Audio apprenticeships don’t come any better than assisting on Beatles sessions at Abbey Road studios. Richard learnt the ropes from Geoff Emerick — ramping the varispeed on the ADT machine, and cutting up tape slivers for Sgt. Pepper’s — engineered solo albums for Lennon and McCartney, before moving to Australia where he had a string of No. 1s, including Sherbet’s Howzat and Stevie Wright’s Evie. We were honoured to present Richard with the Producer/Engineer Lifetime Achievement Award as a part of ARIA Week at Studios 301’s 90th birthday celebration.
Richard Lush was a Stones fan. Everyone else at his school were “Beatle-people”, but a bunch of Liverpudlians in twee jackets flipping their mop tops wasn’t doing it for the self-described rebel; he liked the rawness of the Stones and Mick Jagger’s attitude. Then he heard Twist & Shout, a feistier cut which tipped him towards The Beatles before he had any idea his career would forever be linked with the band. Maybe he would have turned sooner if he’d met Jagger as a school kid instead of later in life. “He came in on a Beatles session once wearing a white suit and I couldn’t believe how tiny he was,” remembered Richard, demolishing the giant stature he’d cultivated of the singer.
Richard’s musical journey started at 14, when his parents brought home the guitar he’d been begging for as a memento of their Spanish holiday. At the time, there were only a few true, lead-playing guitar bands for a teenager to idolise, and Hank Marvin of The Shadows knew how to wail on his whammy bar. Looking through the liner notes of their album, Richard came across Abbey Road Studios. Without a clue about recording, or what even happened inside a studio, he followed an inclination to get closer to the source.
“I wrote them a letter,” said Richard. “Who knows what I said in it.” Abbey Road management asked him to come in for an interview, then after a series of questions and a return call three months later, they offered him a job. “Two of us started on the same day, the other guy was called Peter Mew, and he still works there every now and again. He’s never left since 1965.”
UP THE ABBEY ROAD
Back then at Abbey Road, there was a progression; a very clear pecking order. You started off in the tape library, where you learnt the workings of the building by running tapes around the three main studios. The next step was assistant engineer, where your main duty was to be the tape operator — a position Richard found himself in after six months on the job. Every day, the Operations Manager would assign each engineer to an artist, which occasionally turned into regular gigs. “If you got popular, then you’d get asked for,” said Richard. “If you were really unlucky you’d end up with The Beatles!”
Today, any audio engineer would die to be in that room with The Beatles, but the job required a level of sacrifice not everyone envied at the time. “You had to suddenly say ‘goodbye’ to normal life,” explained Richard. “You’d be there all night, every day of the week. People used to feel sorry for us because they’d come in in the morning and you’d just be heading out the front door.
“Normal sessions would go from 10 till one, 2:30 to 5:30, and seven till 10pm. If you were working with Shirley Bassey, you might be editing albums together in the morning and then you’d do two three-hour sessions with a break in-between. If you were working with The Beatles, you did nothing else; it would have ’10 till 10’ written jokingly on the sheet.”
Still, Richard knew, even then, that working with The Beatles was the creative pinnacle of pop music. All the hours spent waiting for the band to make their way in from McCartney’s poolside, just down the road, would be erased by witnessing a now-classic tune materialise. “They’d ring George Martin to tell him to be there at six, but nobody would ring us lackeys,” Richard explained. Still, at the end of the day “you’d go home and say, ‘We did A Day in the Life today. S**t that’s a good song.’ The pros outweighed the cons.”
When Richard was first assigned to The Beatles in Studio 2, work was beginning on Revolver. It was a completely new team, Geoff Emerick had come on for Norman Smith as the balance engineer, and Richard was working the tape machines. “They didn’t really like different people being around. When I started, no one spoke to me for about four days. I was just the guy in the corner. Then once you’re there, you’re part of the family. They were very secretive about what they were doing,” said Richard, which didn’t stop other artists grabbing on to any sound bites drifting out of the studio. “We’d have a track going backwards, and somebody from The Hollies would hear it through a crack in the door. Then Graham Nash would come up and ask, ‘Richard, what are they doing?’ ‘I can’t tell you.’ ‘I heard something going backwards.’” Later on, when Richard was working on The Hollies’ album, which was more or less finished, “they heard dogs barking and cows moo-ing on Good Morning Good Morning and said, ‘we’ve got to have that on our record!’ Of course, we did it and they decided they didn’t like it, so we had to undo all the edits. It was a nightmare.”
BAD DAY, SUNSHINE
Richard’s first recording session with the Beatles, Good Day Sunshine, was almost disastrous. “Halfway through, we had a hiccup and I wiped some vocals,” he sheepishly recalled. “I started recording and nothing happened, there was a big silence. John said, ‘What happened to the vocals in the cans?’ George Martin looked across at me and asked, ‘Where did you drop in Richard?’ I don’t think I went red, but I was embarrassed — I’d counted the wrong number of vocal lines. I thought it was seven, and it should have been after nine. George was very good. He said, ‘We’ve had a bit of a problem, could you sing those again?’ I remember thinking, ‘What are they going to do when they come up to the control room?’ But it was no problem, nothing was ever said about it.”
Despite the hiccup, Richard managed to keep his job and went on to assist Geoff Emerick for the remainder of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Emerick quit during the making of the white album, and Richard followed him out the door two weeks later, signalling the end of regular work with the band. “By the time the white album came along, there was a lot of friction in the band,” recalled Richard. “It was understandable. They’d been together for a long period of time and musically they were all going in different directions. There were lots of sessions where they were fighting and arguing. At the end, Geoff had had enough of it and Ken Scott took over.”
Richard later returned to do one last session for the band, The Long And Winding Road. It was one of Spector’s contentious contributions to the final album, Let It Be, and most of the band weren’t even in attendance. “We got the orchestra in at great expense to the management,” said Richard. “Somebody sent me a picture of the session wanting to know who the people in the background were. It just looked like a room full of gangsters; Spector with sunglasses on, their manager at the time, Allen Klein, and a couple of bodyguards.”
Before The Beatles started to fall apart as a group, they were continually setting creative high-water marks. Sgt Pepper’s could be credited as the first concept album, but with Geoff Emerick onboard, Revolver had already changed the recording process for good.
Richard put it this way: “Phil Spector’s sound was reverb, and Geoff’s sound was compressed drums. If you compressed the drums, once the bass drum hit it would compress the cymbals, which was his signature. Also, Fairchild compressors had a sound of their own; unique to anything else at the time. He would have three to four Fairchilds stacked up on a little table, plus a couple of Altec compressors and EQs on a trolley. I’d be in the corner and he wouldn’t be able to see me some times.
“The bass drum mic was the AKG D12, which might have been called a D20 back then. It’s got a lot of really low sub you don’t get out of the Neumann FET 47, EV RE20 or Beyer M88 some people are using.
“He wanted to try and get everything to jump out of the speaker rather than sounding like a band in a room. He thought, ‘If I put the mic right in front of the sound, provided the mic can take the dynamic range of the instrument, then we’ll be fine.’”
It sounds utterly routine to us now but at that time this close-miking approach was totally revolutionary.
“There could be limitations when it came to cut it. If you put too much level on the 1/4-inch tape, the needle would come off your record player as soon as the bass drum hit. A whole new book had to be written about mastering back then. Mastering engineers would say you couldn’t have that much bottom end on it and try wind it out, but Geoff would say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ We’d compress it a bit to tape and cheat a bit to get around these problems.”
Eventually Emerick’s close-miking technique caught on in the pop world. The spreading of information was one of Richard’s favourite things about Abbey Road. You not only got to record a huge variety of material, but you picked up tips from other engineers. Whether it was someone diagramming out the seating arrangement for an orchestral session, how many mics they used, or work ethic, it all left a lasting impression on the young assistant. “Geoff would be running between the control room and the studio, fiddling with the guitar amp, changing the guitar, making it brighter,” Richard said. “If it didn’t sound right out there, forget about fixing it in the control room.”
It was a different story beyond the walls of Abbey Road. Engineers never really mixed (in the social sense) with anyone outside the studio. Other than knowing Decca was down the road, they had no insight into how other studios operated. If a specific sound caught their attention, they’d have to dig around to figure out how it was crafted.
“I remember when Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park came out with the phasing on it,” said Richard. “Somebody got hold of the record to look at where it was recorded and see if anybody knew someone who worked there so we could find out how they did it. Everything was all a bit secret back then, unless you happened to see a picture of Frank Sinatra at Capitol in front of a U47. There was no AudioTechnology magazine, and you didn’t have the internet. It’s great for kids now, if they’re interested they can find out what goes on. Whereas we were in the dark back then and just did our own thing.”
What’s perhaps most astounding about Emerick’s influence on the engineering landscape was how limited a window he was looking through at the time. Sure, they were helped along by Ken Townsend, who invented the Automatic Double Tracking (ADT) machine [see sidebar], and had loads of Neumann mics to play with. “It was 47s, 49s, 50s, 56s, 54s and then some classical ones you’d never use,” said Richard. “One appreciates it more now how valuable these things are. You’d have a 47 on a guitar amp and Coles 4038 ribbon mics on drum overheads most of the time. We’d EQ a lot of the top end in and ‘Bob’s your uncle’ — very smooth sound.” But there were no pan pots, it was just left, right, or straight up the middle. And getting accurate EQ on the original tube REDD 37 consoles was a chore; you had to order it in a la carte. “There wasn’t much EQ on the console,” said Richard. “If you wanted specific frequencies, you had to plug outboard in. There was a little square box called an RS127, which went from about 2kHz to 10kHz. That was quite often used for the snare, with a whole lot of 4kHz. There was another oblong piece of kit called a Curve Bender, and that was like a graphic EMI EQ, very broadband. We’d plug that in on guitars.
“It was quite laborious to use outboard gear. You didn’t have it in racks behind you. You had to physically find a piece of equipment or get the chaps in the white coats to bring them over and plug them in. In the ’60s, that’s all we had. You plug it through something that sounds good.”
The other limitation was, of course, the track count. During Revolver, four was the largest number of tracks that would fit onto a tape, so Richard would have to dub from one machine to another. “We’d fill up one four-track then we’d do a four-to-four, and then a four-to-four,” Richard recalled. “We might do four or five generations on some songs. We’d be so concerned about the noise and hiss, but Geoff said when he came to do the Beatles Anthology, there was no hiss. We were paranoid at the time because we knew what it sounded like on one four-track, but you play those years later and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ You just took the punch and dynamics for granted at the time.”
Despite the limited track count of the Studer machine, Geoff presciently planned his bounces ahead of time so they never had to be revisited. “Even when we did multiple generations of bouncing from four-track to four-track, we never went back and redid one on Pepper,” said Richard. “You had to make decisions at the time. If the guitar didn’t sound right, you tried another guitar. The drums weren’t right, well try a different snare. You’d do it over and over and over again to get the balance right and then that was it.
“In other words, whatever we blended together — whether it was drums and guitar, or vocals, tambourine and cowbell mixed together — when we came to the end, nobody ever said the snare’s not loud enough or ‘we need more of this’. You just EQ’d a little more 4kHz into that track. You never went back to ‘sing that line again’. You couldn’t anyway because there’s a bloody tambourine going on.”
When EMI brought in a 3M one-inch, eight-track at the behest of The Beatles, Richard’s job got harder, not easier. “The Beatles were complaining because all the other studios in London had eight-tracks, so the first one at Abbey Road was just for them,” said Richard. “It was a nightmare as it didn’t have a clock on it! You couldn’t tell where you were on the tape. You’d just have all these bits of yellow mark over it. The boffins eventually put a clock on it and we were laughing.
“Then Studer came out with an eight-track and that was sort of okay, but it just didn’t sound as good as the four-track. It was always a bit of a compromise in the dynamics. The drums lost all the punch. The bass drum was going in at around -4dB, and it came back 10dB quieter with all the bottom gone out of it. In those days, you could hear line in and line out on the console, so you could A/B what was coming off the floor, and what was coming off the repro head. “The rock’n’roll engineers protested to the management and said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this. This eight-track sounds terrible.’ We had Willy Studer come over to London and hired a drummer to show him what it was like on the four-track and what it was like on the eight-track. ‘Whoa, dat is a big difference!’ he said. Then they went out for lunch and that was it!”
Phil Spector’s sound was reverb, and Geoff’s sound was compressed drums
Richard at Paul McCartney’s studio in Sussex with Geoff Emerick and George Martin
TWO DAYS IN THE LIFE
Throughout his time with The Beatles, there were many incredible moments. Though A Day in the Life and All You Need is Love “stick in my mind as two of the most amazing days at Abbey Road,” said Richard. “They were both parties. All of a sudden there’s a 50-piece orchestra, a hundred of their friends, and film crews. For A Day In The Life, the musicians were just told, ‘Start on this note, and play anything you want.’ That was foreign to them. All You Need Is Love had so much pressure on all of us with so many million people watching.
“I basically had two four-track tape machines, and when they cut to us, they were miming along to some backing vocals on a separate tape,” recalled Richard. While they introduced the show, George Martin gave him the cue and Richard had to quickly spool that tape off and load up the tape with the full instrumental backing… in under half a minute. “I’d practised it a few times. Then it was all on, 700 million people waiting to see if I had the right tape on the right machine. I might have only been 19.”
FROM THE BEATLES TO BANJOS
Typically, the next step after graduating from assistant engineer was to round out your education with a stint in mastering, before taking on the role of balance engineer. Emerick did it, Ken Scott did it. It was a pathway designed to make sure engineers knew what could be reasonably cut onto a vinyl lacquer. Richard skipped that step and went straight to engineering at the age of 22. His first session was with the Big Ben Banjo Band — a banjo rhythm section and half a dozen horn players recorded direct to stereo. He’d never miked up a banjo in his life and rode by the seat of his pants, praying he’d numbered each mic correctly as the producer called out which banjo was playing the melody.
During his time at Abbey Road, Richard was involved with The Zombies, Cliff Richard, and worked on scores for films like Lady Carolina Lamb. Soon after The Beatles broke up, he also found himself working with the members separately. He part engineered both Lennon’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway solo albums. On both occasions, another engineer had begun the album and Richard picked it up. Alan Parsons had started McCartney’s when Pink Floyd asked him to engineer Dark Side of the Moon. While Parsons was trying to capture spoken word responses to questions like, ‘Is there a dark side of the moon?’ from the studio janitor, Richard recorded McCartney’s No.1 single, My Love with a full orchestra. “Alan was feeling like he’d got the wrong end of the stick,” said Richard. “But it’s been quite successful for him since then.”
Richard said, far from the dramas of the white album and the complete disintegration of Let It Be, working with each Beatle in a solo capacity was thoroughly enjoyable. “Working with John and Phil [Spector], you just had so much fun. It was what they wanted together, so there were no arguments.
I always loved Phil. He’d want so much reverb on the reverb, then reverb on the reverb. He pushed you to the limit, and he still wasn’t happy. Sometimes he went from mono to mono 10 times, after that there wouldn’t be enough piano because it got lost in the shemozzle of reverb, so he’d put another piano on. That’s what made his wall of sound.
“John was the man with the mission. His request was actually not to have the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, he just wanted him to produce it because he was a fresh ear. It was done a lot quicker, not hour after hour with Eric Clapton struggling out of the studio half stoned. It was the same working with Paul on Red Rose Speedway, you spent a bit of time mixing, and fiddling around, but it was a relief to work with them on their own.”
Sherbert in front of the EMI TG console in 1976.
NO.1 TICKET HOLDER
Soon after My Love went to No.1, a notice appeared on the Abbey Road bulletin board offering a two-year engineering position at EMI in Australia. “We all laughed, ‘Blimey! Who wants to go all that way,’” said Richard. When he went home and told his mum about it, she thought it might be good for him, and after a time so did Richard. He’d done a bit of work with Australians in the past: Olivia Newton-John, Cliff Richards’ manager was Australian, as was the Managing Director of the music division. “All these Australians I knew in London said I’d love it,” said Richard. “They all talked about Kings Cross and the beaches, and the weather. It all sounded right up my street. Then you get on the plane and wonder what’s going to happen.
“The first ever session I did was with a band called the Ormsby Brothers. We did a cover version of You Don’t Own Me, and it went to No.1. I’d gone from McCartney’s No.1 to the Ormsby Brothers’ No.1.”
In the next two years, Richard had a string of successes, including Sherbet’s Summer Love. After his tenure ended, he had a contract to go back to Abbey Road. “I went back and it was pouring with rain every day. I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’” Two months later he was back on a plane to Australia.
Sherbet were keen to have him back in the producer chair, so in 1976 “I got married and we did the Howzat! album,” said Richard. “Roger Davies, the manager, wanted it to be their Sgt Pepper’s. We spent a lot of time rehearsing and getting the songs into shape.”
There was a vague understanding that in some way, Richard would bring a little bit of Abbey Road to EMI Studios in Australia at the time. One of the first sessions he did, the drummer asked him how they got that English drum sound. After listening to his snare Richard told him to tune it down deep: “He said, ‘I can’t do that, then I don’t get the rebound on the skin.’ I said, ‘well, that’s how they do it. You can’t make the snare sound really deep unless it’s tuned really deep.’”
Other times he had to figure out how to adapt his way of recording to the Australian mode with a bit of cheeky ingenuity. “At Abbey Road we used to put one mic in the middle of the piano and ‘Bob’s your uncle’,” said Richard. “When I first came to Australia, I put one mic out, and the people here said, ‘We use two mics on the piano, we do stereo.’ I thought, ‘How am I going to get around this?’ I put three mics out, and they thought, ‘Oh wow.’ But I, in fact, only used one.”
At the time EMI Studios in Australia was still a poor cousin of Abbey Road. The main console was a limited version of the TG sent over from London. “It wasn’t the top-end version, but the same quality,” recalled Richard. “The Abbey Road ones had a limiter and compressor on every channel, this didn’t. You could also group and bus everything to two channels and put a stereo limiter on those, which you couldn’t do on the Australian one. Then they had a couple of funny consoles that don’t bare mentioning.
“The console after that, EMI made in conjunction with Rupert Neve and it was great [There were seven made, one of which is in Tom Larkin’s Melbourne studio, Studios in the City. Another is in Paul Epworth’s The Church Studios in London – Ed]. It kept a lot of the EMI EQ and had a separate monitor section from the record side, which was pretty happening at the time. That was the last thing EMI really made. Now they’re putting things of old into plug-ins.”
AUSSIE GOLDEN ERA
Throughout the ’70s Richard worked with Ted Mulry, Jon English, Mark Holden and Air Supply, and a bunch of sessions with Vanda & Young, including Evie with Stevie Wright. “That was another highlight,” said Richard. “Recording Stevie’s vocal on the slow version of Evie, my hair was standing on end. They’re quite rare, those moments when you all look at each other and go, ‘shit, that’s a piece of history.’ There was some great talent in Australia, it just had to be steered in the right direction.”
In 1980 he got a call from singer/songwriter Billy Field, who was setting up Paradise Studios and wanted Richard onboard. He’d been with EMI since 1965, and was nervous about leaving the company to work for a new studio. “But I went to Paradise, so to speak, did a record with Billy that went to No.1, Bad Habits, and quite a few other records there.
After that, Richard went freelance, but often found himself back at EMI, now Studios 301, recording commercials three to four days a week with Les Gock from the band Hush. Later, Gock built his own studio and Richard worked full time for him recording commercials and scores for TV shows like Water Rats. “That was quite challenging. We had three different composers doing the music,” said Richard. “You had to turn around an episode in a week with wall-to-wall music.”
In 1999, once Tom Misner had put the finishing touches on the new Studios 301 in Alexandria, Richard went back to work there. “One of the first things I did was record 90% of the music for the Olympics,” recalled Richard. “I worked with Bruce Jackson to engineer and oversee the music for the opening and some of the closing ceremonies. One of the most challenging pieces we did involved a 300-piece choir, and a 140-piece orchestra all live in the Opera House for an hour and a half to record 12 minutes of music.” It was recorded on two 24-track Fairlight Merlin machines synced together, because the company had just come out with them and were engaged to playback a lot of the music at Homebush.
Richard at the new Neve EMI console in Abbey Road Studio 3.
50 YEARS & STILL BALANCED
With such a long and storied career, involving countless technological advancements. Richard hasn’t changed his approach to mixing a whole lot. He’s still a heavy advocate for bands playing live together, and for vocals to be loud enough in the mix. “No matter who it is, unless it’s instrumental, the focal point should be the singer,” emphasised Richard. “That’s who is telling the story.”
Above all, balance is the key. It’s what he was first employed to do at 22, and has been doing ever since. “What I was first told when I started recording was, ‘You have to hear everything.’ Whether it was an orchestra, jazz ensemble or band, you had to hear it all and the blend of instruments had to be in balance. We were called ‘balance engineers’ back then, that was the job. From about 2000 onwards, it became fashionable to compress everything. The problem I have with a lot of the current records is they’ve got a whole lot of stuff on them, but you can’t actually hear what half the things are because they’re so squashed. I feel like the art of actually balancing things has gone out the window a bit.”
It could be those countless four to four-track bounces that drilled into him the importance of printing the right balance to tape. We’re right to marvel at those Beatles mixes now, they were a technical achievement as well as a creative one. Though Richard can’t stress it enough. If you want to hear the real Pepper, go and buy the mono version. The stereo version was done by George, Geoff and Richard, without the input of the band at the dictum of upper management. After all, said Richard, “It was a team,” involving everyone from Lennon and McCartney to a young 19-year old kid sitting behind a wall of Fairchilds wiggling the big ADT knob.