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Wednesday, February 22, 1967

Recording and mixing "A Day In The Life"

For The Beatles

Last updated on January 6, 2024

The Beatles recorded “A Day In The Life” in four sessions on January 19January 20, February 3 and February 10, 1967. At the end of the February 10 session, in which the orchestral overdubs were added, The Beatles and friends present in the studio recorded an extended humming sound to close the song. However, The Beatles felt that this humming wasn’t dramatic enough, so they came up with the idea of ending the track with a piano chord.

On this day, in a recording session from 7 pm to 3:45 am, they recorded this piano chord, completing the recording of “A Day In The Life” and began the mixing process.

To record the piano chord, John Lennon and Mal Evans played two different pianos (as George Harrison was absent for a large part of the session, Mal replaced him) while Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr shared a third one. Paul led the recording, counting “One, two, three” before each of the nine takes required for them to hit the E major chord simultaneously.

Paul: Have you got your loud pedal down, Mal?

Mal: Which one’s that?

Paul: The right hand one, far right. It keeps the echo going.

John: Keep it down the whole time.

Paul: Right. On four then. One, two, three…

From “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” by Mark Lewisohn, 1988

Take 9 was considered the best and received some overdubs. All nine takes were released in the 2017 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” box set.

The Piano Chord Take 9 was recorded at 15 inches per second on the Studer J-37 tape machine, filling track one of the four-track tape. It was then overdubbed twice, on track two and track three, to thicken the sound. For those overdubs, the piano chord was played at half-speed (7.5 inches per second). On track four, George Martin then added a harmonium part.

I’d noticed that with a piano, if you hold down a pedal on the piano, how long the chord lasts. I’d just do it like a party piece with friends. I’d say, ‘listen to this.’ I brought the idea in. ‘Hey man, it goes on forever. We should do this at the end of a song and just have it go on.’ And of course, George Martin, our very clever producer, magnified the idea and he took the raw thing that I showed him…But it goes on forever. You start to hear little harmonics and things. There’s the magic again!

Paul McCartney – From “McCartney 3, 2, 1” docuseries, 2021

By that point, it had become apparent that the monumental song would be used to close the album, so a very special ending — something far more powerful than Paul’s humming experiment — was needed. The inspiration for what was finally used once again came from Paul, with eager assent from John: a huge piano chord that would last “forever” … or at least as long as I could figure out how to get the sound to sustain.

Attaining the massive sound was fairly easy: we would simply commandeer every available piano and keyboard in the Abbey Road complex and have lots of people playing the same chord simultaneously, then overdub them three more times, filling up a four-track tape with an abundance of audio. But the sustain was a bigger problem: even if you hit a piano chord at full volume and hold down the sustain pedal, the sound only lasts for a minute or so before fading into nothingness. Compounding the problem was the fact that tape hiss and vinyl surface noise would obliterate any low-level signal all too soon. It seemed clear to me that the solution lay in keeping the sound at maximum volume for as long as possible, and I had two weapons that could accomplish this: a compressor, cranked up full, and the very faders themselves on the mixing console. Logically, if I set the gain of each input to maximum but started with the fader at its lowest point, I could then slowly raise the faders as the sound died away, thus compensating for the loss in volume: in effect, I could counteract the chord getting softer, at least to some degree.

In between sessions, I ran a few tests with Richard and my idea seemed to work well enough, so the Beatles — or at least three of them — finally rolled up one evening to put the finishing touch on “A Day In The Life.” For some reason, George Harrison wasn’t there, and neither was Neil; I assumed they were doing something together. Nobody seemed surprised at their absence — the others must have known in advance — but John was quite annoyed nonetheless. In those days, all four Beatles were almost always present at all sessions, regardless of what was being recorded on any given evening. But as many hands as possible were needed, so Mal Evans was recruited to take George’s place.

In preparation for the session, Richard and various brown coats had been busy moving pianos from all over the building into Studio Two, so the array that awaited John, Paul, Ringo, and Mal when they arrived was quite impressive: two Steinway grand pianos, another Steinway upright that was purposely kept a bit out of tune for a “honky-tonk” effect, and a blond-wood spinet. In addition, there was a Wurlitzer electric piano, and sequestered and screened off in the back of the studio because of the acoustic noise its bellows generated, a harmonium. Between these six keyboards, we were sure to generate a big noise indeed.

To get as strong an attack as possible, everyone decided to play standing up instead of sitting down. John, Mal, and George Martin each stood behind a different piano, while Ringo and Paul shared the out-of-tune Steinway upright; Ipresume they did double duty because Paul had to coach his drummer on which notes to play. Because there were four hands slamming out the chord instead of two, that ended up being the dominant instrument on the recording. John was really out of it that night, so Paul repeatedly counted everyone in. It took quite a few takes to get a keeper, because it was problematical getting everyone to hit the start of the chord at exactly the same time. Up in the control room, I would slowly raise the faders as the sound died away. By about a minute or so in, I reached full volume, and the gain was so high that you could literally hear the quiet swoosh of the studio’s air conditioners.

I decided to stagger the overdubs slightly — having each start a little bit later, so that I could crossfade between them when mixing in order to get the sound to last a little longer still. On one of the overdubs, Ringo shifted position very slightly at the very end, causing his shoe to squeak. This happened, of course, just when even the sound of a pin dropping could be heard! Across Paul shot him a sideways glance, and from the look on his face I could tell that Ringo was mortified. If you listen quite closely to the song just as the sound is fading away, you can hear it clearly, especially on the CD version, where there is no surface noise to mask it.

For the last overdub, George Martin moved over to the harmonium because Paul wanted another texture, something a bit edgier. The buzziness of the harmonium fit the bill perfectly, and George did an admirable job of pumping the bellows with his feet as silently as was humanly possible. Other than placing a few screens around the harmonium, I used no acoustic treatment whatsoever—this was one time when I didn’t mind leakage. I was trying to create a complete “sound” from all the keyboards, and the use of heavy compression helped glue them together further still.

Shortly after the recording was completed, George Harrison finally showed up, accompanied by David Crosby of the Byrds. John ignored Crosby but couldn’t resist hurling a little sarcasm at his bandmate. “Nice of you to turn up, George. You only missed the most important overdub we’ve ever done!”

Geoff Emerick – From “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles“, 2006

That sound [of the orchestra] was used twice during the song. The first time, we ended it artificially, by literally splitting the tape, leaving silence. There is nothing more electrifying, after a big sound, than complete silence. The second time, of course, came at the end of the record, and for that I wanted a final chord, which we dubbed on later. I wanted that chord to last as long as possible, and I told Geoff Emerick it would be up to him, not the boys, to achieve that. What I did was to get all four Beatles and myself in the studio at three pianos, an upright and two grands. I gave them the bunched chords that they were to play.

Then I called out, ‘Ready? One, two, three – go!’ With that, CRASH! All of us hit the chords as hard as possible. In the control room, Geoff had his faders – which control the volume input from the studio – way, way down at the moment of impact. Then, as the sound died away, he gradually pushed the faders up, while we kept as quiet as the proverbial church mice. In the end, they were so far up, and the microphones so live, that you could hear the air-conditioning. It took forty-five seconds to do, and we did it three or four times, building up a massive sound of piano after piano after piano, all doing the same thing. That chord was a fitting end to A Day in the Life’.

George Martin – From “All You Need Is Ears“, 1979

We managed to scrape together three pianos. After a few hilarious practice shots, Paul, John, Ringo, Mal Evans and I crunched down on the same chord as hard as we could. You can hear my voice on the master tape counting in to the chord, so that everyone hits it at exactly the same time.

If you recorded a heavy chord strike like that on a piano without any compression, you would hear a very, very loud note to begin with, but the die-away would be very quiet. We wanted the first impact of the chord to be there (although not overbearing), but the decay to be very loud. (Compression takes the impact of the note, absorbs it like a shock absorber, then brings the volume back up quickly to compensate.) As the chord started to fade, Geoff Emerick raised the gain gradually, to keep it singing on. At the end of the note, forty-five seconds into it, the volume level on the studio amplifiers was enormous.

Everybody had to be terribly quiet. If anybody were to have coughed, it would have sounded like an explosion. As it is, on the special Ultra High Quality Recording edition of Sgt. Pepper, you can hear the Abbey Road air-conditioning system purring away in the background as Geoff opens the volume faders to the stops at the very end of the die-away. That’s how we got the famous piano chord.

George Martin – From “With A Little Help From My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper“, 1995

With the recording of “A Day In The Life” now completed, The Beatles and the engineering team directly started the mixing process. As The Beatles’ instruments and vocals and the orchestra overdubs were recorded onto two separate reels of tape (respectively named Take 6 and Take 7), the mixing process required a technical solution to allow two four-track machines to run together that was created by engineer Ken Townsend.

Four attempts at combining and mixing Take 6 and Take 7 in mono were done. They were labelled Remixes Mono 6 to 9. RM9 was then edited with the Piano Chord Edit Piece 9, to create the mono master.

Remixes Stereo 1 to 9 followed, still using the same process to synch up the two four-track machines. However, none was considered good enough. The stereo mix was created on February 23.

We all couldn’t wait to hear how “A Day In The Life” would sound with all the elements in place, so it was decided to mix it right there and then, in both mono and stereo. (In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to do a mix — not a rough mix, but the final one — at the conclusion of a session, in stark contrast to the complicated way things are done today, where songs are usually mixed weeks or months after a recording is complete, often with a new engineer altogether.) Ken Townsend was duly summoned—as the chief of maintenance, he was generally on call for Beatles sessions—and he and Richard began the laborious task of locking up the two four-track machines. Sod’s law, with all four Beatles present and looking over our shoulders, it wasn’t working a lot of the time. Often, by the time we got to the orchestral bit, they would drift noticeably out of time with one another. Everyone dealt with the problem in good humor, though—even the normally impatient John, so stoned was he that night. In the end, we were all actually laying down bets as to whether the machines were going to stay in sync or not; we’d be thrilled on the few occasions when it worked perfectly.

Geoff Emerick – From “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles“, 2006

And then on “A Day In The Life,” to create enough space to record The Beatles and several orchestral passes, you used two 4-track recorders together. Geoff, what can you tell me about that?

Geoff Emerick: People might think that was done last, but the basics on “Day In The Life” were recorded quite early on, on one 4-track machine as usual. The orchestra part was done some weeks later, on a second 4-track.

George, didn’t you have trouble running the two 4-track tape recorders in sync?

George Martin: Well, we didn’t have any sync facilities in those days — they just didn’t exist — so we had to do it purely and simply by guesswork. So what we did was to record the orchestra on a separate 4-track, and we did lace them back in again afterwards. That’s why you can hear a little bit of bad ensemble… you can hear several versions of the orchestras slightly different from each other.

Presumably that was manually spun back into the 4-track.

George: It was done manually […]

Geoff: To link the two Studer recorders, yes. It was trial and error. We couldn’t sync them like we sync them today [1987]. We recorded the orchestra on a second 4-track machine — basically, it was spun in. Ken was the maintenance manager at Abbey Road then, and he always knew the right way to do these things. […]

Ken Townsend: At the time I was technical engineer at Abbey Road, and I did this at George Martin’s request. George put me the problem: we haven’t got an 8-track, so can you find me some way of linking machines together? The Beatles were on one 4-track, and I think we recorded three or four orchestral tracks onto the second 4-track machine. I put a 50Hz tone on the first machine, the one with the backing, and made that one drive the second machine, the one with the orchestra, through the capstan motor of the second machine.

Then when George was mixing it, he had a job to start the two machines together in sync. It was the first time those machines had been linked together, actually. We recorded it in number One studio, but we mixed it in Three. The biggest problem was that when we went to mix in Three, we used two entirely different machines. We used exactly the same system, but the problem was starting them manually.

You can put a marker on two machines, and one starts the other one, but two different machines won’t start instantaneously. It’s not like Q-lock now [1987]. So those two machines were electronically linked, but they had to be manually started, and we had to make sure they started at the right time. Once they locked up in sync, it was fine. We only used that on “Day In The Life.”

1987 interview with George Martin, Geoff Emerick and Ken Townsend – From Recording Sgt. Pepper’s: Unpublished Conversations with | Reverb News

At the end of the session, The Beatles recorded an experimental piece, the purpose of which was unknown. It lasted 22 minutes and 10 seconds, and primarily featured Ringo’s drums, augmented by tambourine and congas. A single take was recorded, and was known in the studio as “Anything” or “Drum Track (1)“.

Session activities

  1. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Editing • Edit pieces 1-9

    AlbumOfficially released on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (50th anniversary boxset)

  2. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Mono mixing - Remix 6 from takes 6 and 7

  3. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Mono mixing - Remix 7 from takes 6 and 7

  4. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Mono mixing - Remix 8 from takes 6 and 7

  5. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Mono mixing - Remix 9 from takes 6 and 7

  6. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Editing • Edit of remix mono 9 and edit piece take 9

    AlbumOfficially released on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (UK Mono)

  7. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 1 from takes 6 and 7

  8. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 2 from takes 6 and 7

  9. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 3 from takes 6 and 7

  10. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 4 from takes 6 and 7

  11. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 5 from takes 6 and 7

  12. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 6 from takes 6 and 7

  13. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 7 from takes 6 and 7

  14. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 8 from takes 6 and 7

  15. A Day In The Life

    Written by Lennon - McCartney

    Mixing • Stereo mixing - Remix 9 from takes 6 and 7

  16. Anything

    Recording • Take 1


Musicians on "A Day In The Life"

Production staff

Going further

The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions • Mark Lewisohn

The definitive guide for every Beatles recording sessions from 1962 to 1970.

We owe a lot to Mark Lewisohn for the creation of those session pages, but you really have to buy this book to get all the details - the number of takes for each song, who contributed what, a description of the context and how each session went, various photographies... And an introductory interview with Paul McCartney!

Shop on Amazon

The Beatles Recording Reference Manual: Volume 3: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band through Magical Mystery Tour (late 1966-1967)

The third book of this critically - acclaimed series, nominated for the 2019 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) award for Excellence In Historical Recorded Sound, "The Beatles Recording Reference Manual: Volume 3: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band through Magical Mystery Tour (late 1966-1967)" captures the band's most innovative era in its entirety. From the first take to the final remix, discover the making of the greatest recordings of all time. Through extensive, fully-documented research, these books fill an important gap left by all other Beatles books published to date and provide a unique view into the recordings of the world's most successful pop music act.

Shop on Amazon

If we modestly consider the Paul McCartney Project to be the premier online resource for all things Paul McCartney, it is undeniable that The Beatles Bible stands as the definitive online site dedicated to the Beatles. While there is some overlap in content between the two sites, they differ significantly in their approach.

Read more on The Beatles Bible

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