When I first began researching the career of British recording icon Joe Meek back in 2000, I knew that he was reputedly a great innovator, but I had no concept of the scope of his achievements. It was only after a year of acquiring, and poring over, huge quantities of written and recorded material, interviewing people who either worked with Meek or were knowledgeable about him, and listening to well over a thousand recordings from throughout his career, that a relatively complete picture began to emerge. Meek wasn't just a curious footnote in the annals of British recording history. He was a giant whose approach to recording and recording technology was years, and in some cases decades, ahead of his time, and his influence has been felt throughout the entire British recording community from the mid '50s until well into the '60s. Nowadays, many of Meek's once-radical innovations have been so thoroughly assimilated that we take them for granted, if we notice them at all — but they provoked a fierce backlash from the majority of his contemporaries at the time they were introduced. I'll touch on a few of them here. But first a little background on the man himself.
Robert George "Joe" Meek was a precocious youngster. By the age of ten he had written and produced theatrical performances by and for the children in his village, as well as built a crystal radio set, a microphone, and a tube amplifier. At age 14, he expanded his rig, working dances and parties as a mobile DJ. And at 16 he acted as a musical supervisor, providing sound effects for local theater groups (that he had recorded on a homemade tape machine). He built a disc cutter when he was 24 and used it to cut his first record — a sound-effects library. He was a "radarman" while serving in the military, repairing radios, televisions, and other electrical devices before becoming a professional audio engineer.
Although frequently celebrated as a musical oddball and DIY rebel, Meek began his professional career as an employee at IBC, the largest and most advanced studio in London. British engineers of that era typically wore white lab coats and faithfully executed procedures developed to record sounds with the greatest possible fidelity. Meanwhile producers sported suits and were charged with making the creative decisions, despite rarely understanding anything about recording technology. That a mere engineer might make creative suggestions, much less insist upon them being carried out, was unimaginable. Meek was almost singlehandedly responsible for changing all that.
Between 1955 and 1957, Joe Meek engineered dozens of hit records for major pop and jazz artists-often adding unusual sonic touches that greatly distinguished them from the recordings of their peers. To realize the sounds he heard in his head, Meek tweaked tape machines and pushed limiters to the max to get the hottest possible levels on tape. He used compressors to create pumping and breathing effects, placed microphones close to (and sometimes inside) sources rather than at the officially prescribed distances, experimented with using the "wrong" types of microphones, and sometimes even went so far as to intentionally overload preamp inputs. He was also a big fan of acoustic echo chambers and tape delay. He built the first of his "black box" spring reverb units out of a broken heater in 1957 (three years before Alan Young developed what would become the Accutronics Type 4 reverb unit for the Hammond Organ Company). It is also likely that Meek was one of the first engineers to direct inject (DI) the electric bass.
As the astute reader may already have gathered, the implementation of these techniques resulted in a major paradigm shift. British pop recordings made in the mid- to late-'50s incorporated a lot of room sound. Microphones were typically placed well away from sources, and separation was achieved by keeping the musicians far apart from each other. Meek close-mic'd sources, largely eliminating the room sound, and then used compressors and limiters to tighten up those sounds and give them more punch. To compensate for the lost ambience, and sometimes to...