Category Archives: abbey road

Thank you, Sir George Martin

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Sir George Martin, Sir Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the studio (image © Rex Features)

Yesterday I was working on a string trio arrangement for one of the tracks on my new album. This morning I woke to the news that Sir George Martin had died. I would probably never have thought to use a string trio on this song without the influence of Sir George.

I became obsessed with the Beatles at the age of seven. When I was 10 I formed a group with three of my best friends – myself on piano, with all of us singing. We were going to perform Beatles songs. I called the group Sgt Pepper’s Mini Hearts Club Band. Apparently, as musical director; I was a bit of a tyrant, as everyone quit not long after. Clearly, I was already a musical genius, destined for greatness. If everyone else would just listen to me.

Pretty much everything I know and understand about production and arranging I learned from listening to Sir George’s work with The Beatles. I religiously worked out the vocal harmonies listening to their records (yes, records. I am that old). I was fascinated by how they all fit together. I listened avidly with headphones, working out the strange sounds of the Revolver album and was ecstatic when I heard the stories about randomly-assembled tape loops, microphones in buckets and other adventurous techniques they pioneered in the studio. Most likely to the horrors of the engineers.

I badgered my parents about buying me the Holy Grail of sheet music – the massive, Beatles Complete in its Bible-black cover with gold lettering. Badgered and badgered as only I could as a child, until my dad snapped one day and said, ‘You’re getting it for your birthday! Now shut up about it.’ Then I felt guilty for weeks because I’d spoiled their ‘surprise’.

My copy was literally falling apart before too long as I worked through the songs, learning the chords and being simply amazed by the perfection of the harmonies in If I Fell, and the heart-rending beauty of For No One. It still makes me cry. I was outraged to discover some of the songs had been transposed to make them easier to play. But that was probably the first time I truly understood how transposing worked, as I set myself the task of learning them in the correct key. I made notes in the margins, corrected incorrect chords or melody lines. I analysed it until I understood the bones of the songs.

And only then I began to understand how it was the cladding of those bones which made them more than well-crafted and unique. It was the production that made them stratospheric. Yes, the Beatles themselves contributed massively to the sounds of their albums and arrangements. McCartney’s insistence that the strings on Yesterday be played without vibrato for instance. But it was George Martin who gave them the means and the insight.

I never intended to get into production myself. It happened a bit like singing for me. I didn’t like the way others sang my songs, so I did them myself. Still the musical tyrant I was at 10, I like having control. I like taking my time, and getting it to sound like it does in my head.

So aged 18 I started with a slightly-defective Tascam four-track, multi-tracking vocals until the tape was so saturated there was more noise than signal. I moved on to ADAT, working with a partner then who taught me a lot about the basics of production. Several experiments with reel-to-reel tape of various widths followed, and then my ex bought a 16-track digital hard-disk recorder which I worked hard to understand.

When I married Graham and moved to London, our tiny spare bedroom became my studio and I was able to indulge in a then state-of-the-art 24-track hard-disk recorder and Roland Fantom S-88 workstation (both of which I still have). I did my Butterfly Bones and Dark Moons & Nightingales albums on that 24-track.

Then we moved to Orkney in 2010, and I set up Starling Recording Studio. I’m now fully immersed in the digital world, using Pro Tools, plug-ins, virtual instruments and strange sample libraries. I love my studio, and am never happier than when sat here messing around with sound. The songs are still the focus but, now more than ever, the production has become an amazing playground for me.

I fully credit Sir George Martin for my interest in all this. He made messing around with sound full of limitless possibility. He was the first person to make the production almost as important as the music, but always made it serve the song.

I started out devouring Beatles sheet music, and now find myself scouring Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions for ideas and techniques. Even now, some 40 years after I first became obsessed with them, I still hear things in the new Beatles mixes Giles Martin has done with his dad that make me wonder ‘how did they do that?’.

 

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The author at the Steinway grand piano in Abbey Road Studios Studio Two

A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit the inner sanctum of Abbey Road Studios where The Beatles recorded most of their tracks. I stood on those stairs in Studio Two and played the Steinway grand that just possibly Sir Paul McCartney may have recorded on. It did indeed feel like a pilgrimage, and it was magic.

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The famous stairs of Studio Two

Thank you, Sir George, for making our world a more aurally fascinating place. You were amazing and brilliant, and I’m so grateful for everything you helped to create. And that means everything from Right Said Fred (as recorded by Bernard Cribbins) to A Day In The Life. There aren’t very many music professionals who have actually changed the world. But you certainly did. Thank you.

Kathie Touin

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In the footsteps of the Beatles

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After another long gap, at last! A new blog!  I’ve been busy lately, just having returned from a much-needed two week holiday in lovely (damp) Devon.  But more on that later.

Just before we left, I was able to fulfil the musical dream of a lifetime.  Musicians have a pilgrimage place here in London – the Abbey Road Studios. 

You can go to Abbey Road  pretty much any time and there will always be a few people outside the studios snapping pictures of their friends, dodging cars on the famous zebra crossing, or leaving a little message to their favourite band on the white wall out front. 

On each of my three trips to London, previous to coming to live here, I made a point of visiting.  I don’t believe I ever wrote anything on the wall, but it’s always interesting to read the comments of others.

Then, a few months ago, I received an invitation to the annual Performers Meeting for PPL, a performance rights group in the UK who look after radio airplay royalties for musicians and performers.  I was thrilled – the letter said the meeting was to be held at Abbey Road Studios!  I immediately RSVP’d.

The day before the meeting I realised that I was coming down with my husband’s nasty case of flu he’d been battling.  For once acting in a completely insensitive and selfish manner, I decided to stuff myself full of cold medicine and go anyway.  I didn’t care if I infected the entire London recording industry, I was not going to miss a chance to see inside those hallowed studios.

Nervous and excited, I emerged from the St Johns Wood Tube station and wandered up the road towards the studios.  Blue plaques on buildings are used here in London to show places where famous (dead) people lived or worked, and I was delighted to pass a house where the artist Alma Tadema had lived.  He painted what is probably my favourite picture of all time – Spring, which hangs in the Getty Museum in California.

I continued down the road till I got to the corner where I needed to turn to go into Abbey Road itself.  There was the famous zebra crossing and, sure enough, there were about six people with cameras getting pictures of it.

I stood at the kerb and waited until the cars stopped to let me cross, then, conscious of the historic nature of the event, stepped down onto the crossing and made my way across Abbey Road.

I walked along the wall, stopping to read some of the comments scrawled there, and realised that since I’d last been there we’d lost another Beatle.  My favourite tribute was a perfectly drawn, tiny submarine, which would have been yellow had it not been drawn in felt tip.  At each window waved a Beatle, and there were tiny fish swimming past it.

I rang my husband to let him know that I’d arrived and was still managing to stay upright on the copious amounts of medicine I’d been taking.

I then glanced back at the wistful fans taking pictures and, thinking I’d dreamt of doing this my whole life, turned and walked through the gate and up the steps to the front door of the studios.  Of course, I’d always dreamed I’d be walking through those doors on the way to a recording session of my own.  But one has to take what one can.

I took a deep breath, pulled the door open, and went into the gorgeous art deco lobby.  I was directed to a table to sign in, then was led down the stairs, past the posters of the many soundtracks that had been recorded there, through the doors and into the sacred temple that is Studio 2.

The reception was lovely, and it was great talking to different people there.  The meeting was interesting.  The after-party with the drinks and nibbles was good fun, and I got to meet some really nice people who I’m hoping to stay in touch with.

But what really mattered was that I was standing in Studio 2, where it had all happened.  Nearly everything The Beatles recorded was done in that room.  All the films I’d seen, every album I’d played and sang along to, all done here.  There were two Steinway grand pianos at one end of the room.  Someone had opened one and various people took turns playing on it.  I had a quick, shy go on it, wondering if Paul McCartney might have recorded Let it Be or Hey Jude or Lady Madonna on it.

It might have been my imagination, but the place did have a palpable atmosphere.  It was a place of great presence, presumably from the accumulation of the great presences who had been there.

I soaked it in, lingering, wanting to capture the feeling of what it must be like to record in there.  But eventually, after several hours, they asked us very politely and nicely to leave.  I’m sure the staff there are used to what happens when you get a bunch of musicians around an open bar and free food. 

I took my time going back upstairs, looking around me, and was jolted by the quantity of film soundtracks that had been recorded there – all the Lord of the Rings, some of Danny Elfman’s excellent filmscores. I glanced down one hall and was stunned to see posters from every single Star Wars film lining it. Of course! Those were done here as well.  Probably the first orchestral music I was really swept up by.

And in the stairwell, amongst other greats such as Stevie Wonder, was a picture of Kate Bush.  I’d forgotten that she was an EMI artist as well, and that her first two or three album would have been recorded there.  In that room.  On that piano?  I wonder.

It was humbling and inspiring.  I learned a lot from the content of the PPL presentation. But the location stole the show.  Thank you, PPL, for giving this musician a chance to look inside this palace of dreams.

Kathie Touin