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?’.
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.
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.