Tag Archives: Starling Recording Studio

Goodbye and Farewell, Keith Emerson

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Keith Emerson and Kathie Touin

Keith and the author at the Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles, in 1993 after an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert (photo: © Kathie Touin)

Last night I was stunned to hear the news that Keith Emerson had died. This morning it seems that he killed himself. I’m heartbroken and devastated beyond words, but I feel I need to say something about what he has meant to me.

Keith’s music crashed into my life 34 years ago and turned everything upside down. He is the reason I became a professional musician and have spent my life trying to live up to the standard he set for rock keyboardists. His work has kept me going through some of the darkest days of my life, and helped me celebrate some of the brightest.

I met Keith 21 years ago and we became friends. He was funny, kind, generous, silly, occasionally thorny and never anything less than supportive of my music.

Kathie Touin, Keith Emerson and Charlie 1993

Myself with Keith wearing a t-shirt bearing my cockatiel’s namesake, Charlie Parker (photo: © Kathie Touin)

I haven’t seen him often over the past few years, though we’ve stayed in touch. I was delighted to be able to attend his concert at the Barbican in London last July and give him a long-overdue hug.

His was an immense talent, and I’m struggling to accept that his voice is now silent. It’s unthinkable that I won’t get a ridiculous email in my inbox, or be able to pick up the phone and listen to his wild tales of life during ELP’s heyday.

I was recording the string part on a song for my new album yesterday, probably at the time this awful event was playing out halfway across the world in Santa Monica, California. Though I’d written the song about someone else, the lyrics seem almost eerily appropriate now. But then Keith and I always had an uncanny connection.

I thought I’d post the lyrics here as a tribute to Keith, though the song won’t be completed for a little while yet.

Thank you, Doctor Emo. I will miss you terribly. But we will still connect every time I sit at the piano and play your music.

Lotsa luv,

Kathie Touin

BETWEEN HEAVEN AND THE SKY

The leaves were drifting down
when I heard the lonely sound
a barren fruit tree in the wind
that lost its voice that once could sing

And underneath a rosy moon
I knew that you’d be leaving very soon
but you were never meant for me
You were far too rare a thing

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

I never thought you’d come to stay
an errant star that rainy day
but how was I to ever know
How deep your footprints on my soul

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

Somewhere between heaven and the sky
I hope you have found the answers why
You dog-eared the pages of my past
I hope you’ve found calmness and peace at least

And now I wander here alone
beneath a sky so wildly blown
but I can hear you calling me
that cloudy voice I’ll always know

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

© K. Touin 2014/2016 (BMI)

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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

Isn’t this where we came in?

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Ellen Grieve, Tom Ashman, Hannah Bown, Kathie Touin, Fiona Driver

Kathie Touin (top) with fellow UHI students before Celtic Connections gig
(photo: Gemma Hahn)

Now then. Where were we? Ah, yes, I was just about to embark on life as an adult student at the University of the Highlands and Islands through Orkney College on the Applied Music BA degree. A journey which I was going to detail and follow in my blog as it progressed.

Only it took far more time then I expected, even though I was part-time, and the blog fell by the wayside in my effort just to keep up.

It was fascinating and I learned more from it than I expected, though not always through the coursework. It was more a case of realising what I really want from music at this point in my life.

And sadly being a student again was not what I wanted after all. This felt a bit strange as I’ve spent the years since I attended the Berklee College of Music secretly wishing I could go back and complete the degree I left half-finished. I still regularly have dreams that I have gone back, usually involving the scary elevator we had to use to get to the dorm rooms.

I think the idea of a music degree consisting almost entirely of practical skills that presumes a certain level of musical knowledge is a good one and I wish everyone I was on the course with the best of luck with it. If I was only just starting out it would be great.

But the amount of time I spent on the work showed me that I should be spending that time on my own writing and recording and developing my new business, Starling Recording Studio.

I opened my home studio to the public last month and am enjoying working with local artists. Between sessions I’ve at last started on my own next recording which I’m finding very satisfying, especially with all the new gear I have.

It was stimulating working with other musicians on the course and the residentials I attended in Inverness and Glasgow were challenging and helped me understand aspects of my own musicianship that need work.

Being at Celtic Connections in Glasgow in January was a wonderful opportunity and I’m grateful for the chance to have been a part of it.

So, the blog is back and I have some catching up to do. Husband Graham, Roscoe the Rescue Dog and I have been on some brilliant adventures lately here in Orkney, so I’ll be reporting on those, as well as keeping you up to date on the new album’s progress and any developments at the Starling Recording Studio. You can also follow the studio on Twitter @StarlingOrkney as well as on Facebook at facebook.com/StarlingRecordingStudio.

See you soon!

Kathie Touin