Joe Meek - a Portrait
Part 3: The Meek Sound
Technically, the Joe Meek sound is relatively easy to describe: Its typical trademarks are strong reverb and echo effects (his main reverb unit Meek had custom-built from the spiral springs of an old fan heater; nobody ever was allowed to touch this device) as well as massive overdriving, especially the vocals. Besides this, Meek used to speed up the vocals (sometimes to a grade not far from the absurd, sometimes beyond that), often he added a slapback echo to the vocals (as best known from several Sun Records productions), and usually he backed them up with a two- or three-voice female harmony choir (the legendary "heavenly choir"). Reverbs as well as echo effects were usually made artificially. Besides this, Meek provided his records with a massive bass and an amount of compression that makes the music literally jumping out of the speaker.
Besides the technical side, there are also a couple of music-sociological aspects in the Meek sound. They are a little bit more complicated. But both aspects are inseperable anyways, so the following paragraphs are about both.
The Meek sound is based mainly on two elements: a "basic" sound that applies to nearly all of Meek's recordings, and individual special sound effects he additionally thought up for many of his recordings.
AM radio and cheap record players
Meek didn't go for hifi quality (listenend to his recordings under this aspect they are horrible), he wasn't interested in objective sounding voices and instruments. He had learned something important by listening to hundreds of U.S. rock 'n' roll and pop records: to think his productions from the other end. To see what that meant we have to keep in mind two facts:
First, for the commercial success of a record it was extremely important to get radio airplay. But the Top 40 stations at that time used AM frequencies, FM radio was not available for pop music.
Second, the avarage household didn't have any hifi stereo equipment; the young people usually listened to their preferred AM stations with small monophonic transistor radios, and for playing records they used portable record players with a speaker that usually was integrated in the folding-upwards cover plate.
The recordings needed to sound good on this kind of equipment - monaural, on the AM car radio, on transistor radios and cheap record players. To optimize them for this, some U.S. recording studios even had their own low-power AM transmitter and car radios, so they were able to check out already during the mixing process how the record would sound when played at home or in the car.
In the UK, the conditions were not very different from those in America. The radios and record players had different names, but were technically more or less of the same making, and also in the UK there were no FM frequencies available for pop music. The radio stations that were important for Meek were especially Radio Luxembourg and several pirate radios, and they all used AM frequencies, as well as the BBC did. This was the background Meek had to deal with when producing records.
Electrifying sound - then
When we talk about the "Meek Sound", we have to keep in mind that using today's equipment it's nearly impossible to listen to Meek's recordings under the same conditions as people did in the 1950s or 60s - even if we play the original vinyl 45s. records. And the sound we find on today's Meek CDs is usually remastered and optimized for today's stereos and mobile devices and has nearly no connection to the sound impression people had then.
If we listen to Meek's recordings today, this is the reason why we cannot really understand anymore how extremly electrifying the sound of the distorted piano sound of - say - Humphrey Lyttelton's Bad Penny Blues or the sweeping noise of The Honeycombs' Have I The Right must have been for the then listeners.
Mono or stereo?
Nearly all recordings produced by Joe Meek are monophonic (the few exceptions are some of the later Honeycombs recordings and the space fantasy I Hear A New World, besides this there are a couple of more experimental "alternate takes" which surely were not meant to be released). The reason has been mentioned above already. Not that "mono" was a dogma; technically Meek's studio was equipped for simple stereo recordings. But Meek saw himself as a producer of 45s in the first place, and 45s at that time were monophonic. 45s in stereo didn't catch on until the seventies.
As can be seen on the photo, the recording room was small and sound-deadened with softboards and curtains, so it was nearly free of reverb. Also the drum kit was dampened with pillows or a blanket to get a dryer sound. Between the control room and the recording room there was no window and no talkback microphone as usually to be found in recording studios, Meek had to look through two doors around the corner to talk to the musicians in the recording room.
The Tornados in the recording room, ca. 1962
A big part of the Meek sound results from the studio equipment and the way Meek worked with it. Although three- and four-track tape recorders already existed at that time, Joe Meek never used them in his studio. He owned a couple of high quality two-track tape recorders: a Lyrec TR-16, an EMI TR-51, two Vortexion WVB (which he used mainly for echo and slapback echo effects) and an Ampex 351. For his recordings he used a multiplay system that had to be puzzled out very carefully: First, a basic instrumental track was laid down a tape. Then this tape was re-played to the musicians who added further instruments live. The whole thing was recorded on a second tape. Then this second tape was re-played and again a further part (i.e. the back-up vocals) could be added live, and the sum was recorded on tape - and so on. In addition to this Meek had modified one of his tape recorders: He could switch off its erasing head, and this way he could "stack" several recording layers without erasing the earlier recordings. (At that time there were a couple of home tape recorders that offered a similar method by a so-called "trick button").
Meek never had a reasonable mixing console in his studio. In the beginning there was not more than a simple custom-built device with four volume and four treble control dials ("top lift" as the latter were called in British studios). In autumn 1962 a Vortexion four-channel mixer was added, so there were eight channels available then. Meek didn't really need a more complex mixing console because usually every voice and every instrument was compressed and limited already during the recording; so every sound source had nearly the same level on tape and the volume never varies. This extreme compression and limiting is a very typical mark of nearly all Meek recordings; he owned several Fairchild and Altec compressors and limiters.
His recording methods and the simple mixing consoles were probably the reason that Meek usually didn't do the (mono) mastering in his own studio; he preferred doing that at IBC or Olympic Studio where also the record matrices were cut.
Meek's main microphones were two Telefunken/Neumann U-47 for the vocals, completed with several AKG and Reslo microphones of different characteristics for instruments and other sounds.
For monitoring there were two rather giant Tannoy speakers, powered by two (mono) tube amplifiers. These speakers were household devices in nearly every professional studio. Meek had one of them in his control room, the other one usually he had in his living room one flight below.
Meek used to add several sound effects already during the recording. This was and is an unusual way to handle them because then, the effects are part of the recording and it's impossible to modify or remove them later. This means that Meek must have had in mind from scratch quite precisely what he wanted to hear on the final recording.
Meek probably was the first producer in Britain's studios who used a separate microphone for each instrument and put them very close to the instrument, only a few inches away (a method usually called "close-up miking"). The result was a sort of "right-in-the-face" sound that was completely new to the audience. - Even it's sort of "common knowledge" in the Meek community, but it has to be said that Meek did not invent close-up miking. Hundreds of American rock 'n' roll recordings from the 1950s already make good use of this effect, also singers always liked the effect of a microphone clipping by close-up singing. Besides this, conductor Leopold Stokowski made experiments with close-up miking already in the 1930s, and we can be sure that Meek as a sound freak as well as a fan of classical music knew these recordings.
Apparently, starting in summer of 1964, from time to time Meek seemed to think about changing his studio over to full stereo technology. In the literature a six-channel stereo mixing console is mentioned which Meek had custom-built, but nothing is known about this device. Besides this, an invoice exists from the Ampex company dated March 31, 1966, for about 938 Pounds. It has no model number on it, but in all probability it was an eight-track tape recorder that Meek had bought from them. Unfortunately he didn't pay it (as a reminder from May 24 shows), so the device had to be returned unopened.
In his studio, Meek had a two-manual Lowrey organ, a Selmer Pianotron, a Hohner Glockenspiel and a rickety old upright piano (an old player piano without the barrel). Its hammers were equipped with thumbtacks to get a "honky tonk" sound. Meek didn't invent this effect, in the contemporary avant-garde music it was an old hat already: Composer John Cage had written sonatas and interludes for "prepared piano" in the forties; in pop music the clinking sound of the tack piano was also well-known from hundreds of rock'n'roll recordings from U.S. studios; in Germany, "der schräge Otto" or "Crazy Otto" (= Fritz Schulz-Reichel), had made various recordings with such a piano.
There was another unusual instrument in the studio; Meek had bought it for a few pounds: a "Clavioline", a keyboard instrument from the forties. It was monophonic, which means only one key could be played at a time, it was not possible to play chords. Officially made to be an additional unit for electro-acoustic organs, it was supposed to provide sounds like "strings" or "brass", but in fact the sounds were simply strange and artificial - but it was exactly this that made it interesting for Meek; he used the Clavioline on several dozen recordings.
Meek preferred working with two arrangers, Charles Blackwell and Ivor Raymonde (the latter is best known for his work with Dusty Springfield). They already knew the sound Meek was going for, and they knew the conditions in his studio. There's a lot to complain about in the quality of Meek's singing starlets, but not about the musical know-how of these two arrangers. Also the session musicians he used to hire were generally well-skilled professionals.
Playing with sounds
All this was only half the battle. For many of his recordings, Meek additionally came up with striking individual sound effects. They were intended to amaze the listener and stick in mind. Therefore, Meek not only used music instruments but simply anything which could make sounds: corrugated fiberboards, metal ashtrays, a comb moved over a table edge, pebbles on a baking tray, punches against the door, kicks against the bathtub, feedback, artificially made short-circuits, even intentionally detuned instruments may be heard sometimes.
But what Meek loved most were strange, abstract sound effects he created with tape manipulations. He recorded any kind of noise, drenched it in loads of echo and played the recording backwards and/or at different speeds, sometimes up to a point where the original sound source could no longer be recognized. His specialty was to synch up the echoes exactly to the rhythm of the music. But he integrated also sounds and soundscapes people knew from radio plays - storm, thunder, screaming, steps, and other common sounds. Even Meek's canary had a part: On the Telstar flip side Jungle Fever the bird created - strongly slowed down - the jungle atmosphere.
Meek used a custom-built filter device to vary the tone color of voices and instruments; it was a sort of predecessor of today's graphic equalizer. This device had four controllers, so there were four frequency bands that could be emphasized or de-emphasized. When musician Eroc (= Joachim Heinz Ehrig) in the late nineties was selected to restore Meek's complete Tornados and Heinz recordings, he did an analysis of their frequency spectrums and discovered that the bass is particularly present at 125 Hz, the mids at 2.5 and 6.3 kHz, the highs at 8 kHz - those were likely the frequencies of the four controllers.
The studio as instrument
Nearly every studio had devices like these. The difference was: Meek not only used these devices, he operated them during the recording. In other words, he played the equipment like a musical instrument. If this sounds unbelievable, just listen to Meek's recording Sweet Little Sixteen by Michael Cox from August 1961, and it will be obvious: The guitar solo, played by "Big" Jim Sullivan, is probably the first one in pop history which uses a wah wah effect. But the guitarist is not doing that with a pedal (the wah wah pedal on which Jimi Hendrix later became a virtuoso did not yet exist in 1961); it was Meek who manually shaped this effect with his custom-built equalizer during the recording process. Today this record is seen as a classic of British rock'n'roll - and rightly so; it's a picture-perfect example for Meek's ability to use the studio as his instrument.
Musicians in the bathroom?
In the pre-digital era, the professional sound recording studios had a reverberation chamber. Usually this was simply a big, empty room in the basement. On the one side there was a loudspeaker, on the other side a microphone. The sound engineer could send the signal from his mixing console to the loudspeaker, the microphone picked up the sound, and this now reverberated sound could be added to the original signal. The result is a naturally sounding reverb that couldn't be made with any electronic devices at that time.
Even if Wikipedia argues the converse: At 304 there was no reverberation chamber as described above. Joe Meek was able to do many things, but even he was not able to overrule the laws of physics. There was no room in the building that would have been big enough or acoustically suited to be used for reverb. It would have been possible to install a plate reverberator there (the measurement of such a device can be 2 x 3 meters or more), but no such reverberator is mentioned anywhere, at the time of Meek's death the room was empty, and nothing like this was found in his estate. Meek only had a couple of spiral spring reverberators, some of them custom-built.
But on many of Meek's recordings we can hear a reverb effect that he could not have made with spiral springs (probably most famous example is the ghostly female refrain voice in Johnny Remember Me). The answer to this problem is: In all probability, Meek equipped the tiled bathroom with a speaker and a microphone and used its special acoustic as effect chamber in the described way. Of course the bathroom was too small for cathedral reverb, but there is a sort of natural spatial quality Meek added to his recordings this way, especially if this is combined with manipulations of the tape speed to get a longer duration of the reverb. We can be sure that Meek knew all possible tricks to manage this.
Using the bathroom as reverberation chamber earned Meek the reputation that he recorded singers and instrumentalists in the bathroom. Meek himself always disputed that. On the other hand, Screaming Lord Sutch reported this occurred. So probably putting singers or musicians directly into the bathroom was the exception, but apparently from time to time Meek did it.
Control room, ca. 1965
"If it sounds right, it is right!"
This was one of Meek's favorite sayings, and often enough he had reason to repeat it. Meek's sound was contrary to nearly everything British studios did at that time. And moreover, what he did was incompatible to the sound recording rules and regulations the BBC had set up. These were written rules, and nearly every private studio complied with them (that was not really surprising as most sound engineers at that time had received their apprenticeship from the BBC).
Eroc, mentioned above, analyzed azimuth and sound spectrums of Meek's recordings. He came to the conclusion that it is sometimes hard to say what was an intended effect and what was objectively a flaw. Meek himself probably had to deal with this: Several times the record pressing plant returned his tapes to him because the technicians considered the recording defective. His standard answer in cases like this: "When I am able to get that on tape this way, then you will be able to press it this way!" - Which, on some records, had the consequence that the (too) massive bass catapulted the pickup arm out of the groove.
Behind of all the noise, all the compression and all the tricks: Meek had a remarkable sense for sound economy. Even today, his recordings succeed against all kinds of background noise, their sound is massive but transparent, and they come without superfluous decorations. His feeling for what was the core of a recording rarely left him (but if so, then it did completely).
At latest when Telstar topped the charts, the special sound of the RGM productions became a trademark, known to everyone in the scene. Sometimes competitors tried to imitate his sound. Probably a lot of sound engineers went into depression by trying this, and not a single one of them did it successfully. On the other hand Meek's way of production had one serious catch: His bands and musicians often enough weren't able anymore to reproduce on stage the sound the audience used to know from their records.
Sources see part 13
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© 2006 Jan Reetze
last update: Feb 6, 2014