Did you ever wonder how John managed to sound so lethargic in the song “I’m Only Sleeping?” Or ponder how George Martin could have played such fast piano rolls on “In My Life?” Perhaps you didn’t even notice anything special about the vocals on certain songs. Well, the answer lies in an age-old production trick that The Beatles used for effect in several songs called VariSpeed.
VariSpeed is the process by which music is recorded with the tape machine slowed down or sped up. When the track is mixed it is played back a the standard speed of 50 cycles. This can be done in an obvious fashion, or more subtly.
In songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” the effect is intentional as two separate versions of the song were recorded and then edited together. The only way to get the two keys to match was to slow the second version down (the version with the horns and cellos). John’s voice was slowed down considerably, but John liked the way it made his voice sound, so it was kept.
Another obvious use of VariSpeed was the piano solo to “In My Life.” George Martin wanted to play the solo in a baroque style, but was having trouble as the tempo of the song was too fast for him. The solution was to record the solo at half speed (and at half the pitch) and to play the tape back normally into the mix. The result was a solo that sounded too fast for a piano. But as a credit to George Martin the extra speed did not take away from the regal sound of his classically influenced solo, so the solo remained on the record.
In some songs The Beatles opted for a less obvious approach in which vocals were recorded slightly lower and slower, but when sped up they matched the key of the backing track so that the vocal didn’t seem any “higher” than usual. The effect of this, though (and the reason they did this), was a slight difference in the timbre of the voice. John used this technique to make his voice to sound lethargic in the songs “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (recorded slower, but sped up in the mix). “Magical Mystery Tour” also contains backing vocals treated to VariSpeed. The Beatles were just looking for their voices to fit the overall sound of the song and this technique was a simple way to achieve it.
VariSpeed is not a production technique that The Beatles invented or pioneered. It has been speculated that speeding up a voice in order to make an artist sound younger had been a music industry practice for years (The Beach Boys were rumored to have done this in their earlier years). And Ross Bagdasarian had previously topped the charts as David Seville with “Witch Doctor” spawning a number of records by The Chipmunks. But The Beatles used this technique differently and for more artistic purposes than merely trying to sound younger or more comical. It was yet another item in their bag of tricks, used when a particular song would benefit from it.
Now that you know about how The Beatles managed to make their voices sound different in certain tracks, here is “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and its VariSpeeded lead and backing vocals. Enjoy.