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Interview with Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan
authors of Recording The Beatles

by Gillian G. Gaar (reprinted with permission)

Since its release in the Autumn of 2006, Recording The Beatles has become something of a phenomenon in the recording industry (and amongst Beatles fans in general), selling out four printings almost exclusively on the strength of word-of-mouth. The book has been critically acclaimed by the New York Times, MOJO, WIRED and praised by such music icons as Pete Townshend, U2, and Sir George Martin. As the book entered its fifth printing, Gillian Garr caught up with authors Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew for a chat about the project's origins.

Congratulations on the success of Recording The Beatles. Let's talk a bit about your backgrounds, how you got interested in music, and how you got interested in the Beatles.

Brian: I grew up with music on the radio, a piano and guitar at home, music lessons on both. My whole family likes music, but no one was in bands or performed professionally. Like most people, I listened to a lot of radio and records, the American albums mainly. Although I was alive when the Beatles were around, I was too young to have any personal first-hand experience with them. The first Beatles I remember seeing was the 1970 “Hey Jude” LP, and other people’s albums. Still, it’s probably the most important music in my life.

Kevin: Both of my parents are musicians, so music was a constant part of my childhood. My dad had been in a rock band in the late 1960s, and when I was a kid he was always writing and recording demos at home on four-track. I grew up watching him do that and eventually began writing and recording songs myself. I'm a second generation Beatles fan; they broke up before I was born. But I heard a lot of 1950s and '60s music growing up, and the Beatles just grabbed me. When I was really young, I preferred their earlier period — "She Loves You", "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" — but as I got older and began writing and recording, their later period stuff was such a revelation. "Strawberry Fields Forever" still blows my mind every time I hear it, and I think it always will.

You each started out writing the book on your own, unaware of each other. How did you two meet?

Brian: We were introduced through one of the Abbey Road technicians that had worked with the Beatles. He knew we were working on very similar projects and understood we could help each other, rather than compete. Thank God he did; it was still a ton of work with both of us together.

Kevin: It was inevitable that two people working on the same kind of book would eventually cross paths. We were talking to the same people, and were put in touch with each other. What a great decision that was. It was so nice to finally meet someone else as interested as I was in all the minutiae and history. I really don't think there was anyone else on the planet that could relate to the topic the same way. We obviously clicked.

Brian Kehew
Brian Kehew
(photo: Peter Cobbin)
Kevin Ryan
(photo: Peter Cobbin)

How did you get the idea to do this book, and when did you begin working on it?

Brian: It's tough to pinpoint it, but I was working on something in 1991/92. It was originally to be all the instruments and studio gear, something to show you everything that made those records sound the way they do. But it eventually became just the studio gear. I remember wanting to know about two things specifically. One was the piano sound on "Birthday", which turned out to be a weird effect created by running an acoustic piano through a certain Vox amplifier. But, no one knew what it was, and no studio I knew could do it! I also had heard about ADT and had no idea how it was done. People mentioned it used two tape machines and so on, but it was all just rumours and no clear instruction on how to do it.

Kevin: I started work on it in the late 1990s. I had begun arranging and producing professionally by that point, and I wanted to know how they did everything — not necessarily so I could faithfully duplicate their sounds (though I tried!), but more out of an endless fascination with the work. The Beatles' records were — and still are — a touchstone for me, and I was just intensely curious about the methods and gear that had been used to record them. There was a time when this information was very mysterious and hard to come by. I waited and waited for a book that would have all the answers, but it gradually occured to me that no such book was coming. And I knew other people were interested in the same subject, so it seemed like a logical book to write. At the very least, I could have my questions answered. Of course, I had no idea what I was up against. Neither did Brian. It was a far more massive task than we ever would have imagined.

The book is over 500 pages long; did you always know it would be that big?

Kevin: We knew it would be a fairly substantial book, but not that big. Brian and I had a list of things we wanted to learn when we set out on the project. You know, what kind of mics were used for this, what kind of compressor was that, how did ADT work, what was that mixer? At the time, the list seemed adequate, but in retrospect, it was pitifully incomplete! We had sort of incorrectly assumed that we knew most of what was used and how they recorded and that there were probably just a few blanks that needed to be filled in. But one of the things we realized as we got further into it was how much there was to be discovered, and how little people really knew about the subject. There was just so much misinformation out there. Almost nothing was as it had originally seemed. And as we moved forward, we kept finding more and more stuff, with more and more detail. And the book just continued to grow. It got bigger and bigger, and there was no way we were going to trim it down. Self-publishing seemed like the way to go, as we could call all the shots. It could be as big as we wanted, with all the photos we wanted, and we could maintain complete control over the layout and presentation. Along with all that came a lot of responsibility, but we took it on gladly.

Brian: One of the best parts of self-publishing is we could approach the book purely as fans, with an eye to what people like us would want. A commercial publisher often misses these core needs, but we knew people would pay for more than a normal small book, as long that big book was truly satisfying. At one point, we saw it grow over 300 pages and we were thinking ‘no publisher will touch this!’ It came out at about 540 total pages, far bigger than we thought!

Brian, Lester, Ken, Kevin

The book and accompanying materials, including a slipcase that looks like an old EMI tape box.

EMI group
Kevin and Brian stand on Studio Two's famous staircase with many of the former Abbey Road engineers and technicians that helped with Recording The Beatles. This photo was taken during the book release party at Abbey Road. (photo: Terry Conway)

Were any interviewees reluctant to participate, especially as you got into more and more detailed questions? Or maybe that excited them?

Kevin: Initially there may have been a slight bit of reluctance on the part of some people. But you have to understand that some of these guys have been asked about the Beatles every day of their lives. They aren't exactly eager to discuss the topic anymore. Most of the time, though, once they saw that we were approaching it from a unique angle, they were interested and willing to cooperate. They realized they had a chance to really contribute something fresh and meaningful. We weren't asking the same questions they'd heard before. We weren't asking them for impossible personal insights into the lives of the Beatles. We weren't asking them about juicy details and rumors. In most cases we were asking them questions about that time of their lives that they had never been asked. I think it was a trip down memory lane for them. They ended up enjoying it. And then they would speak to one of their old mates that had worked at the studio, and they'd mention us and the project. And then that person would be brought onboard.

Brian: Everyone was different. Most were excited to show their side of the picture — not just retell stories about the band, but explain their own lives and situations back then. It was a different world, and every single interview taught us something. And some people did hundreds of exchanges with us. In most cases, they had been told by other former staff that we were onto something good, and followed their advice to come on board. Usually we could show them we already knew a lot more than one could expect; we didn't have to ask them "baby" questions. We work hard to know a lot about any subject, far more than one needs to know. And it's tough to find these people sometimes. They are very private, but we had years to look. We even got some great interviews within two weeks of finishing!

How did you go about acquiring all the artwork? I'm thinking especially of the older equipment...

Brian: In some cases, equipment is truer to history than anything else, so it was important to find what we could. Hard evidence answers questions easily sometimes, sometimes raises a few new ones."Finding the gear" was a similar search to finding the people. Some of the gear is at Abbey Road still, but not much. Then again, how many modern working offices have 40-year-old equipment around? Private owners had kept other pieces. Some gear didn't exist anymore, and we used older photos or created some visuals to show what something was like. Kevin is brilliant at graphics, and sometimes we had to visually "repair" something so you could see it as it was when The Beatles used it.

Kevin: It was tough, and there were times when we were afraid we wouldn't be able to track down some key pieces of equipment. Luckily we were able to find almost all of it, but it took a while, and that's part of the reason it took so long to finish the book. The equipment was just spread out all over the world, and it was a matter of tracking it down and photographing it. We were intent on showing basically every control and knob on each piece and explaining what it did. At this point, I think Brian or I could hop into a time machine, go back to 1967, and not be too lost on a Beatles session. We wanted everyone that read the book to walk away with the same feeling.

You're both engineers and producers, so I'm sure you had some familiarity with the way the Beatles worked in the studio. But what kinds of new things did you learn about their recording process through doing this book? What surprised you? I've wondered if having fewer tools forces an artist to be more creative.

Brian: Number one, I'd say there was a process of thought that I've never seen elsewhere: the Beatles always wanted change. They wanted to move on and not repeat themselves. Even if it meant a weirder song, where the lyrics don't make sense. Or they would sing in a corner, which sounds pretty bad, but they liked it. They were always trying to do what had not been done. But the key is they did this without the fear of something turning out bad. Sometimes it was kind of bad, but they knew they were "The Beatles", with great songs, and they were leading the pack into something new. It's funny, we still basically record things like they did; not much change in guitars, bass, drums and how people record them, almost half a century later! Maybe we need to relearn their lesson of change...


(Above) Brian measures Echo Chamber 3 and (below) pores through EMI paperwork (photo: Kevin Ryan)
Brian paperwork

Kevin: I think it is very telling that the Beatles records — these amazing recording landmarks — were basically recorded with less gear than is found in many modern home studios. Granted, the gear was top-notch, but they had a fairly small selection of it, and they just learned to make the most of what they had. The Beatles' engineers improvised within their means and made it work. Part of it was that the songs were so amazing, they could have been recorded with anything and still been great. A lot of people get hung up on having all the right equipment — the latest gadget or the most sought-after piece of vintage gear — and they don't spend enough time writing better songs. I also think that, because of certain limitations, the way the Beatles' engineers worked — and the way most studios worked at the time — meant that decisions had to be made right then and there; they had to commit to the sound, knowing it couldn’t be altered later. I tend to think things are too labored over these days, too groomed and tweezed, and as a result a lot of it is sterilized. A lot of modern music, in my opinion, is just so much more lifeless than the Beatles' records, which were recorded decades ago on antiquated gear. In any given Beatles song, I guarantee you that there are numerous things that most modern engineers or producers would "fix" if the song were a modern production. Beats would be shifted into perfect time, notes would be brought to perfect pitch, the tempo would never fluctuate, everything would be maxed out. But I'm drawn to those "imperfections" in the Beatles' recordings. I think those bits are the human element at work. Those little things give the tracks character and life. Now, I'm sure George Martin and crew would have fixed some of those things if they could have! But they didn't have the tools to do it, and yet the recordings definitely stand the test of time. I think people could learn from that and just let more things be. Write a better song and worry less about the hi-hat being quantized.

What would you say to potential readers who think the book might be "too technical" for them to get into?

Brian: It's not technically written. It's more like some of the popular best-sellers where a physicist tells you how the universe works. We tell you how the Beatles universe worked, piece by piece. You don't have to follow every page of the book, you can skip to the parts you want. But you could learn everything that was there with general concepts and understand. My roommate just did a book like this on TV Production and I learned a lot. It's not my world, but I understand it after reading.

Kevin: There is a way to approach this book for just about any Beatles fan. Some people won't want to read about each and every microphone used to record the group. That's fine. They can still read about the people who worked with the Beatles, or learn the layout of the studio, or skip ahead to the Production section, which walks the reader through the sessions in a chronological fashion. The recording techniques are explained in easy-to-understand text that doesn't necessarily require an intimate understanding of the technical side of things. Basic concepts are explained in a sort of Recording 101 manner. I don't think the book is totally above the head of anyone interested in how those records were made. There's something for everyone.

People can only get the book via the website, and the first four printings have sold out. I understand that some day there may be a cheaper version. All correct?

Brian: Yes, we've only made it available through the website so far. We may sell through retail and other sites someday, but no immediate plans as it's going so well. It's like music and bands: if you find an interested audience, almost everyone will be motivated enough to come and get it. We think that most of our sales are people showing their friends the book; it's too big to borrow it, and they want to have it, so they buy one! But that's good. It's the kind of book people want to keep around for years.

Kevin: The Internet is a big equalizer. Small publishers can now reach their audience in a way that only major brick-and-mortar stores could do a decade or so ago. It's worked very well for us so far. We are planning on a less-expensive version sometime down the road, but we have no firm release date for that. It will happen eventually, but this current edition is the version we want most people to hold in their hands. This is how we envisioned the book — tape box and all.  ♣

Learn more about Recording The Beatles at


Recording The Beatles

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