Joe Meek’s Never-Ending Impact on How We Make Music
How could a man who was tone deaf and had no sense of rhythm change the landscape of recording techniques? Joe Meek was that very man. A studio engineer who was loved and loathed during his professional reign between 1955 and 1967. Meek is now regarded as an innovator, whose impact in the recording industry continues to stand the test of time.
In 1955 Meek began his professional recording career working as an engineer for the largest and most advanced studio in London, International Broadcasting Company (IBC). At IBC Meek made a commercial impact in the music industry, producing countless hits by adding sonic touches only distinguishable to his name.
He was the first to use techniques such as the use of the close mic recording style, overdubbing during live sessions, the creative use of compressors and limiters, building as well as using the first ever spring reverb unit, using tape loops and intentionally overloading signals to create distortion effects.
Meek also battled schizophrenia and was erratic and challenging to work with. He often argued with musicians, throwing their equipment (and the musicians) around studios and had many fallouts with those closest to him.
His personality would ultimately lead to his death in 1967 — a suicide after murdering his landlady. Yet his impact in the recording industry has grown with time and has wide correlations to music perception and cognition.
Tone deafness, the implied advantage of brain injury
Was Meek’s tone deafness due to brain damage or music-processing abnormalities since birth, and if so, I wonder if this affected his association with emotion, rhythm and melody in music?
Specifically was it his disassociation with these musical elements that made him a greater pragmatist when it came to producing music? Maybe. Perhaps too simple a conclusion but one easily bought into.
At the peak of Meek’s powers, between 1955 and 1965, most of what he did was considered wrong or incorrect. This adversarial battle against what was considered the norm would be seen to fuel his work ethic — like many great innovators before and after him, Meek exploited expertise from an unfavourable position.
Technique 1 — Get Closer
Meek was the first engineer to tweak the commonly used distant mic technique, (distant at the time was referred to as the correct distance) changing to the close mic technique, placing microphones directly in front of sound sources. By isolating sound sources during recording sessions, Meek was able to sonically remove the room and perceived distance from an audio signal.
This gave him greater control over audio signals and is often one of the first practical lessons for amateur engineers today — isolating sound sources with the use of the close mic placement. I should add this is also due to how the modern microphone is manufactured. And indeed if Meek was the first engineer to use the close mic technique successfully then records, engineers, students and products are still arguably influenced by him today.
Technique 2 & 3 — Compress & Reverb
After Meek close mic’d instruments and audio sources, he would compress and limit their signals heavily to tighten sounds and give them additional punch. In essence what was lost by isolating his sources by close mic’ing them (i.e. room ambience), he would later put back into his audio signals by sending the signals to an echo chamber. This re-routing of signals functioned as an unnatural construction of ambient effects.
Ultimately, total control over audio inputs is what Meek chased. His creation of ambient effect let Meek determine how much ambience be on tape, rather than his microphone recording. Crucially, this let Meek manipulate reverb levels much later on in his workflow rather than have dense reverb (or ambient) level straight to tape.
Things Moving In Front Of You
“I’ve tried — and I’ve had to do it rather carefully — to create the impression of space, of things moving in front of you, of a picture of parts of the moon,” (Meek, 1960).
In 1960, Meek was found discussing putting motion into his mixes. He achieved this very simply by panning a sound from one side of the stereo field to the other. Meek would elaborate on this technique by using the reverb created by echo chambers to create motion throughout the stereo field, panning dry sounds to one side and the other, or by having dry sounds on one side and the “bleed” (audio leakage — a sound from an unintended source) from the recordings on the other side of the stereo field.
Technique 4 — Panning
Panning itself has fairly complex theoretical underpinnings yet simple enough to do in practice. What Meek was doing here was adjusting the volume of one output (for example his left mono source) and the other output (for example his right mono source) against each other. Decibels are the main drivers in terms of gain addition to each side. i.e. The more gain applied to one of these sources, the increase of decibel value and the likely increase in loudness (loudness is a perceptual phenomena).
Most of Meek’s commercial success came in the 1960s. The records during the 60s were made in his legendary studio, located on the third floor above a leather shop in London at 304 Holloway Road. Biographer, Barry Cleveland writes that his studio could only be accessed by climbing several steep flights of narrow stairs. And then, “on-top of making a challenging load in, musicians who angered Meek were routinely thrown down the stairs followed by their gear”. Charming!
Sources & further reading:
Oland, Dannenberg, Loudness Concepts & Pan Laws — http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~music/icm-online/readings/panlaws/index.html
Why modern audio recording might not exist without British DIY audio pioneer Joe Meek — http://tapeop.com/articles/100/joe-meek/
Cleveland, Barry, Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques, (2013)