I've always been fascinated by music.
The first piece of music that I can remember hearing and deciding that I liked was an instrumental by a British band called the Tornados that was called Telstar. It was written and produced by studio wizard Joe Meek and a fine bit of trivia about the piece is that the guitarist who played on it was George Bellamy, father of Matt Bellamy, the singer and guitarist in Muse. As it was released in 1962, I'd have been just two years old when I first heard it; it seems that good music has always made a big impression on me.
Other memories of music from early childhood involved listening to my father playing tapes on his mono Ferrograph 2N reel-to-reel tape recorder when I was six or so. I can still remember the complex smell of that machine, a combination of overheating electrical components, hot oil, and the musty, slightly sweet aroma of magnetic tape. He used to record a bizarre selection of music from classical concerts to comedy sketches by The Goons or Victor Borge. Luckily, I had some hip relatives too: my cousin Janet and her friends would discuss the latest releases by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and listen to Radio Caroline in her car, and my cousin Peter was the first person I knew to own a Pink Floyd LP.
When I was twelve my father finally upgraded his 1960s valve setup and bought a turntable: a Thorens TD160 hooked up to a Salora Hi Fi Stereo 3000 amp. I finally had a reason to start buying LPs of my own. Unfortunately to start with I often had to content myself with reading the sleeve notes rather than actually listening to the music; I wasn't allowed to touch my father's turntable at all and, as he has always been a control freak, if he didn't like what he heard, he'd take it off the deck and hand it back to me with the words "I'm not listening to that rubbish." Eventually I acquired a second-hand record player of my own, a portable model which had a black plastic covering and a silver front with a folding, latched lid and a carrying handle on the side. It was, I think, made by Bush. I got a tremendous amount of use out of it and I've been listening to music ever since.
What was the first album I bought? It was Emerson Lake and Palmer's "Pictures at an Exhibition", which I bought at W H Smith's in Stafford. Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" followed immediately afterward - but as I was living in the Midlands and it was the 1970s, most of the albums I subsequently bought featured rock music in one form or another. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Yes and Pink Floyd were the bands at the top of the "albums to buy" list that I would obsessively rewrite every month or so as I discovered more records that I needed to add to my collection. Eventually I focused on prog rock, and ever since then the genre has been my first choice for listening (and, these days, for playing). The blend of complexity, technical competence and big production values pushes all my muso buttons.
In case you're wondering: yes, I still have all my vinyl LPs, and I still listen to them. I have yet to investigate the delights of direct drive turntables, but I now have a belt drive Pro-Ject P2 turntable that cost more than my first three systems combined, and it's been worth every penny. The process of putting a disc on the platter and brushing the dust off it is a ritual I will never tire of. It helps focus your attention on the music to come in a way that the trivial act of slotting a CD in a drive can never equal. Physically, the LP is such a glorious object. There's enough room on the sleeve to get a proper impression of the artwork rather than squinting at some tiny reproduction, and the gatefold sleeves for some double or treble albums have the size and heft befitting such extravagant musical endeavours. Hawkwind's albums were particularly impressive when unfolded, for instance. An LP wasn't just something to be listened to. It was a piece of art, something to treasure and cherish. Music is not something to be consumed; it's meant to be savoured, contemplated, and enjoyed. The packaging is an integral part of that experience. CDs just aren't the same, and as for downloads? Don't get me started.
Having said all that, I remember being astonished by the absence of surface noise and the huge increase in dynamic range when I first listened to a CD. It was a recording of an album I thought I knew, by Peter Gabriel. Even though it was back at the beginning of the 1980s, I can still remember my single-word reaction when it started to play:
As soon as I discovered what a compact disc sounded like, I started saving up to buy a player. I bought my first CD player back in 1982 or thereabouts. It was part of a gold Marantz midi system that came in a stack with a tuner, cassette deck and amplifier, and a turntable stuck on the top. While the other components were all pressed into service immediately, it was actually several months before I could afford to buy a compact disc to play on it. CDs back then were far more expensive than they are now. The asking price was somewhere north of £15 and it didn't drop for years. No wonder the 1980s were such a time of excesses in the music industry, because they must have been raking in the money.
The first two CDs I bought were "The Turn of a Friendly Card" by the Alan Parsons Project and "The Golden Age of Wireless" by Thomas Dolby. I wasn't exactly an early adopter, though. For the most part I continued to buy my music on vinyl and the CD collection remained in single figures for about a year. The fact that I could buy two or three vinyl albums for the price of one CD meant that picking the digital version of a release was a pretty major deal. The process of deciding which albums were worth buying on CD involved considerable research and the assessment of a bewildering and convoluted array of arcane criteria that I'd come up with; purchases depended not only who the artist was and how familiar I was with their work, but also on things like what sort of musical instruments were being played (and how loudly) and also on the technology used to record—and mix—the album. In the 80s, CD sleeves had a three-letter code on them called the SPARS code, which indicated whether the methods used to record, mix, and master the album were analogue (denoted by an "A") or digital (denoted by a "D"). I decided that the must-have CDs, in terms of sonic clarity, were the ones with a DDD code. These days, of course, things aren't quite so clear cut...
Most record shops didn't sell CDs at first; I can remember spending many lunchtimes in the record shop over the road from where I worked in Cheapside in London (which I think was called Harlequin Records), as they had one of the largest selections I knew about. Their stock probably ran to five or six hundred different titles, which sounds a paltry amount in these days of online retailers but back then, it was the sonic equivalent of Aladdin's cave. I spent a fair proportion of my salary in there in the 1980s before I moved to Milton Keynes and bought a house. There, the main music retailer was Sam Goody's, whose prices curtailed the rate at which I bought new discs even more effectively than my newly-acquired mortgage.
As their prices came down, though, CDs gradually became my de facto medium for buying music. Even so, it took another seven or eight years for my vinyl habit to completely die off. That was when the internet happened, online music retailers like play.com appeared, and the price of CDs dropped through the floor. It's fairly safe to say that I went nuts; my album collection ballooned, rapidly becoming in danger of taking over the living room. CDs are still my preferred medium for buying music.
The CD player on my Marantz system finally wore out and stopped working after nearly twenty years of heavy use, so I took the plunge and moved to a separates system. My timing was perfect: the Digital Versatile Disc had just hit the market, so I chose a disc player that could play DVDs as well as CDs. Then I hooked everything up to my television and began my adventures in home cinema. You can read all about that obsession of mine elsewhere on this site. The DVD player that I bought could deal with more esoteric formats as well as playing plain CDs, so I explored the SACD format for a while. I liked the idea of surround sound mixes, but I soon decided that I could live without replacing the albums I already owned. SACD releases of albums that I was interested in were few and far between, too—to date, I have a grand total of just four albums on SACD. It's probably just as well that SACD was a rabbit hole that I chose not to go down.
I made the same choice with DVD-A discs. As they could be played on most standard DVD players, they became more popular than SACDs with a wider selection of recordings available, but once again the format only makes up only a tiny fraction of my collection, and most of the DVD-A disks I bought as standalone releases (rather than being part of box sets or commemorative reissues) were recorded by Donald Fagen. Tracking his snapping fingers as they circle around the room at the beginning of Kamakiriad is a great piece of music to check that your system is working properly.
The highest-quality recordings I own are on Blu-Ray, including several King Crimson albums and a version of Rush's Moving Pictures. The Crimson box sets are glorious things, each containing on the order of twenty discs addressing a two- or three-year phase of the band's fifty-year recording career. Each set addresses two or three albums and does so in prodigious detail. The albums are presented in multiple formats that include surround sound mixes together with studio outtakes, videos of live performances, and much more besides. Some Blu-Ray discs in these sets carry audio that's sampled at 96 kHz, which is more than double the 44,100 Hz sampling frequency used on CDs. The 24-bit encoding used to store all that extra data also gives more headroom than the 16-bit encoding on CDs.
What this means in non-technobabble terms is that the sound is ostensibly much more finely detailed and the difference between the quietest sound and the loudest that can be recorded without the signal clipping or distorting is greater. Theoretically, the human ear shouldn't be able to tell that there is anything missing from the audio as it's presented on a CD, because we can't hear frequencies above 20 kHz, which is less than half the sampling rate. But psychoacoustics—the study of how the brain perceives sounds—is a strange thing, and a recent meta-analysis by Joshua Reiss found that some people really could tell the difference. With my hearing in the state it's in, I'm not sure that I'd put myself in that category of listener, but I most definitely can hear a difference between the Blu-Ray and the original album versions as they were released on CD. However I suspect that it's the separation of tracks in the 5.1 surround mix that's letting me hear the additional detail, not the extra audio bandwidth or headroom.
And as things stand, I'm not ready to move away from the CD format. For one thing, I've invested heavily in the format, with a collection of nearly 2000 discs. For another, I'm not a fan of digital file compression applied to music. I find low bitrate mp3 files ugly and painful to listen to, particularly if there are cymbals in the mix—high frequencies don't survive lossy file compression in any shape or form that's easy on the ears. The results are nasty. I don't really do the downloads thing unless there is absolutely no other way of getting the particular piece of music I'm looking for, or I can get a CD of the same album at the same time.
I like to hear the music I'm listening to properly, but I wouldn't class myself as an audiophile. I don't keep swapping out components in the quest for that perfect sound—far from it: I refresh my audio system once every twenty years or so. When I do decide it's time to upgrade, it's usually because something breaks. I'm not keen on adopting new formats when they're introduced; it took me fourteen years to buy an amp that could decode DTS Master Audio data, for example. When I do buy stuff, I buy equipment that's going to last. The key to any system is the speakers, and way back at the turn of the century I spent a long time auditioning different brands connected to amps in all shapes and sizes before I picked the setup that I've got now: a pair of B&W DM 602 series 2s for the left and right channels, 601s for the surround channels, a CC6 for the centre and a Paradigm PDR10 for the sub. Twenty years later, the resulting sound is still so good that unless something unexpected happens to them, I don't think I will ever need to upgrade them. So far, I've resisted the temptation to put extra speakers in the ceiling to handle Dolby Atmos discs.
As I said in the introduction to this page, I was never allowed to go to gigs as a kid. My parents may have meant well, but they were both obsessively overprotective and my father in particular wanted to control everything I did. He had no interest in spending money on luxury items like concert tickets for anyone other than himself. All my schoolmates were off having the time of their lives seeing bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, Yes, and the like in the heydays of the 1970s, and I wasn't. If I'm being honest, I still bitterly resent that fact. I've been overcompensating ever since.
By the time I was eighteen, my father could no longer claim that I wasn't old enough to be allowed to go out on my own and I finally got to go to gigs. I'd go and see anything I could; early concerts ranged from blues legends The Pirates, who were supported by Blast Furnace and the Heatwaves (a side project of music journalist Charles Shaar Murray), prog legends Rush on their Tour of the Hemispheres, supported by Wild Horses, and Devo, supported by The Members (which was the first concert I ever went to at the Hammersmith Odeon; the ticket cost me £4.50.) In my twenties, I'd go to at least one gig a month, sometimes more than one. If favourite bands played London, I'd try to go on every date they played. I started noticing things like stagecraft, and judged bands by how much they mixed up the set list from one night to the next. At this point, I guess I was already thinking about how I'd go about playing live...
A good live gig always makes me feel like I'm a teenager again. The buzz I get from a big concert is enough to keep me going for a month or two. The only concession to any sort of maturity is that I wear earplugs these days. I started doing this after catching Motörhead's Bomber Tour at London's Hammersmith Odeon. It was so loud that when Philthy used his kick drums it felt like I was being physically punched in the chest. It certainly got the adrenaline flowing, but my ears rang for nearly a week afterwards and I decided that subjecting myself to sound pressure levels that high on a regular basis probably wasn't a good idea in the long term. My hearing isn't so great these days if there's a lot of background noise, but it's a darn sight better than it would be if I hadn't started using earplugs. Look after your hearing, kids; you only get one pair of ears.
I still go to gigs, because there are few finer things in life than seeing and hearing a good band totally nailing it on stage. My blog will usually have a report when I've been to a particularly memorable show.
I had piano lessons when I was a child and as a result when I was eleven or so I was asked to perform for visiting parents of prospective pupils at my school's open day. Which was odd, because the piano lessons I'd been having were private ones which took place at home, and my musical proficiency (such as it was) had absolutely nothing to do with any efforts that the school had ostensibly devoted to teaching me the rudiments of music. In fact, their efforts had been minimal. The teacher couldn't keep control of the class and the only lessons that were regularly disrupted more than music were those in religious instruction; it's safe to say that the music tuition I received at school was, in fact, non-existent.
And I hated the performance I gave at that open day. I may have got a round of applause afterwards, but all I could think about were the mistakes that I knew I'd made as I stumbled through the piece. Five decades later, I can't remember what the piece of music was, but I still feel embarrassed when I think about how badly I felt that I'd played it. It still makes me cringe and it put me off performing in front of an audience for nearly two decades.
Perhaps part of the problem with that is the fact that, to a small boy whose friends were all into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, the piano is just about the most uncool instrument that you could ever hope to play. Your parents' upright piano is no substitute for a rack of Moog synthesizers when you're thirteen and dreaming of being the next Rick Wakeman. First and foremost, I have always been a synth nerd.
But when I finally acquired my first polysynth (a Roland JX-3P that I still play) it turned out that those piano lessons had been useful after all. When my friends heard me play, it wasn't long before I started being asked to fill in for their regular keyboardist at gigs. I'd have to say that I'm probably most proficient as a keyboard player, and at most of the gigs I've played I've been behind a rack of synths. The largest venue I've played? Probably Hemel Hempstead Pavilion in front of a couple of hundred people. Here I am at The Square in Harlow in 1987. That's me on the left in the er, very red trousers. Hey, it was the 80's, Ok?
Sadly, both the Pavilion and The Square have since been demolished. I'm not going to make any observation about possible links with my musical career. Other venues can breathe relatively easily; in the years since then, I can count the live performances I've made on the fingers of one hand. I have jammed with friends in an informal setting from time to time, although even then I'm always spectacularly anxious about getting up on stage—which is odd, because once I'm there and playing something, I have a great time.
And now I have a couple of Moogs of my own, as well as a Korg M3, a ridiculous number of Rolands and an ARP Odyssey (as played by Ultravox's Billy Currie and as mocked by Douglas Adams). These days they all stay safely in my studio, rather than being taken out on the road. The problem with being a keyboard player, it turns out, is that there is almost as much heavy lifting involved as there is when you're the drummer in the band.
Which is why I've made sure that when I've played gigs more recently, I was the one playing lighter and more portable instruments. I've played bass guitar live, and Chapman Stick, and even guitar. And that's become a bit of a thing, if I'm honest.
I may have started out as a keyboard player, but somewhere along the way I developed a fierce addiction to playing the guitar.
Loudly. And with plenty of distortion.
The first guitar that we had in the house was a nylon-string Selmer that my parents had acquired from my cousin. I've still got it. I loved playing along to cassettes of music I'd recorded off the radio or from friends' LPs. By the time I was sixteen I knew I wanted to move from acoustic to electric guitar, but without an income to pay for one, I was out of luck. Instead, I used to read music newpapers and guitar magazines avidly. If anything, that just made the obsession worse and it's probably why I am where I am now (and you'll see exactly where that is in a minute). Once I got a full-time job and could afford to buy an electric guitar, I headed over to Denmark Street in London to find a second-hand bargain. Back then, Denmark Street was a mecca for musicians of all types and a list of the shops there back then reads like a roll call of legends: Andy's, Macari's, Hanks (no apostrophe), Rose, Morris & Co., Rod Argent's Keyboards—I knew them all. I picked up a second-hand Japanese Strat copy in Rose, Morris and bought a Vox Escort practice amp to plug it in to. When I got them home that Friday evening, I don't think I have ever been so excited. I retreated to my room, plugged in my guitar, sat down on the bed, and started to play. I barely stopped for the whole weekend.
The Aria was a delight to play, but eventually I decided that it needed more poke. So I bought my first guitar pedal, an MXR Distortion Plus. Then I bought a flanger. I bought a chorus. I bought a bigger amp. I bought an Electro-Harmonix "Big Muff pi" (stop sniggering at the back) but I still couldn't get the sound I wanted, so I upgraded the Aria's pickups. Then I had a full locking tremelo system installed on it. I bought more pedals. I developed a bit of an effects habit, if the truth be told. And maybe I needed an even bigger amp?
By the time the 90s rolled around I had a 100-watt full Marshall Stack and a Zoom 4040 multi-effects board which allowed me to make quite ridiculous noises at preposterous sound levels. The Marshall was capable of blowing crisp packets off pub tables at a distance of twenty feet. Bought second-hand off Thin Lizzy's road manager (a long story) it had previously been used by John Sykes and was clearly overpowered for the sort of environments I was using it in. Nevertheless, I still have both the Stack and the Zoom—it's only recently been supplanted by a Zoom G3. Okay, I still have all those other pedals and amplifiers too, but that's just nit-picking. I'd also acquired a battered old Fender Telecaster along the way from an eccentric Greek record producer who traded guitars regularly, so I now had two electric guitars I could choose to play.
After seeing people like Robert Fripp or Steve Vai in concert I realised I was never going to achieve stardom as the best guitarist on the planet, but it never stopped me plugging in to the Marshall and wailing away. It's a profoundly satisfying way to unwind, and the Fender Telecaster has to be one of the most seductive pieces of engineering created by humanity.
But the first guitar shape I ever recognised, and the sexiest, most covetable object in existence that I knew about was—still is—the Fender Stratocaster. Hendrix played one. David Gilmour got sounds out of his Black Strat (or more accurately The Black Strat) that blew my mind. Clapton played one. So did Jeff Beck. And so did Ritchie Blackmore. And so did Mark Knopfler, and Rory Gallagher, and even Hank Marvin. Almost all my guitar influences played one. That first electric guitar I ever bought, the Japanese Strat copy, was an Aria Pro II Stagecaster and while it wasn't a Fender, it looked and sounded enough like a Strat to make me happy. I fell in love with guitar playing through playing that one guitar. I've still got it; it's been heavily modified over the years, and it's been very well-used.
The last time I put new strings on it, I realised just how worn out it is. The bridge saddles in the locking tremelo have grooves worn into them, and the frets are very noticeably notched. Close to forty years of playing will do that to a guitar, so it was time to find a replacement for it (the Telecaster, after all, is a very different beast to play—single-coil pickups and no tremelo system).
I'd tried loads of guitars out in shops over the years, but I just couldn't find anything that appealed to me (at a price I could afford, anyhow). That all changed back in June 2014 when I walked into one of Bristol's many guitar shops. I was looking for a Strat, but none of the Fenders I'd tried felt right. But like my Aria, other Strat-shaped guitars are available, and although the guitar I finally tried out that day might not have had the Fender logo on its headstock either, its heritage was unmistakeable. With a humbucker in the bridge position, it also had the pickup layout that I've come to favour over the years. I picked it up, plugged it in to a Blackstar solid-state amp that the shop had, played three chords on it, smiled, and knew that it was coming home with me. The amp came too.
When I tried the Jackson out in the shop I realised that amplifiers have come a long way since Marshall made my JCM-800. That Blackstar is solid state and I can pick it up with one hand, but it has an amazing set of effects built into it and the sounds I can get out of it are mouthwateringly good. I bought it on the spot. Unlike my Marshall stack, it comes with a DI output that can also be used with headphones, and it sounds amazing even when all you're moving is electrons. At the time I bought the Jackson, I was only working part-time and when I wasn't at work (which was most of the time every week), I was playing it, and playing obsessively. The result was a change in my playing ability of a magnitude that I have never experienced before or since. It was a glorious feeling. I started to produce pieces of music like this, played on the Jackson with the neck pickup selected:
The Jackson is so good that I really didn't expect to be buying another guitar for another couple of years at the very least, but when I walked into Intersound Guitars in Dursley a couple of months later to buy a guitar strap and some fresh picks, Denver pointed out that they were selling a rather nice second-hand Squier Custom II Telecaster and asked if I wanted to give it a quick try out. And like an idiot, I said yes.
Another three chords, another smile, and I had another guitar to add to my collection. It's got P-90-style single coil pickups designed by Seymour Duncan and a tone that's as creamy as the colour of that body. It also has a C-profile neck, like the Telecaster that I played in Vancouver a few years ago that I got on so well with. And it had hardly been played. I really like the contrast in sound between it and my older Tele, which has a much brighter, sharper, and more aggressive sound.
I've already mentioned that these days I also play bass, as well as the Chapman Stick. As I've been a Stick player for years, extra strings don't intimidate me, and I have been fascinated by the possibilities that extended range instruments offer since I first saw one—which was probably Steve Vai's seven-string Ibanez Jem. Over the past few years I've been getting more into music by musicians who have moved from seven strings to eight and beyond, particularly metal bands like Meshuggah and Animals As Leaders. A few friends play them, too - so I've been able to see at first hand what they can let you do. Inevitably, as I played guitar more and more I started thinking about adding an extended range instrument to my musical arsenal and in November 2014 I bought an early Christmas present to myself. Somewhat predictably I took the completely over-the-top option and went for an Ibanez RG9-BK, which has nine strings tuned from low to high as C# F# B E A D G B E.
It's the first electric guitar I've owned that has a rosewood fingerboard; I've always favoured maple necks and never got on with rosewood before now, but this one just feels right. It took me quite a while to get to grips with it—the neck is much wider to accommodate those three extra strings, and that meant that my fingers didn't always end up on the strings I thought they were heading for, but now I've got used to it, the thing is awesome. Through the Blackstar's distortion channel it could give Godzilla a run for his money. Clean, it lets me do all sorts of crazy things—I frequently spend several hours with it just building up loops and overdubs with my Jam Man XT pedal. It takes me in all sorts of unexpected and interesting directions, like this:
You can see in the video that I added a Gruv Gear fret wrap at the nut. The bass strings have a tendency to sound if you don't damp them down, and when you're moving your hand across a fingerboard this big, it's difficult to mute all the strings.
The RG9 has been an integral part of my composing workflow for years now and it's always the first guitar I reach for when I want to try something out in the studio. Sadly, the rest of the guitar community didn't respond to it as enthusiastically as I did, and Ibanez's nine-string range has since appeared only intermittently.
It took me fifteen years to double the size of my electric guitar collection from one to two. In the space of a single year in 2014, I'd gone from having two electric guitars to having five. The thing with guitars—something that I tried to resist for as long as I could—is that it becomes very difficult to stick to just one or two. It turns out that it was also hard to stop at five. Musicians often talk about GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, that feeling that there's always another piece of gear that you need to make your sound complete. It's a real thing, trust me:
I go through phases of GAS focused on different aspects of my playing. I thought that I'd got my obsession with hardware synths under control when I bought a Korg M3 workstation, and you'll hear all about that in a bit. But there must have been some vestige of the drive to get a wider range of synth sounds remaining, because it got mixed up with the GAS that was fuelling the expansion of my guitar collection and I started thinking how best to combine the two. It may have taken me nearly four decades to get round to it, but in 2017 I finally started to explore the world of guitar synthesis. I bought a Roland GR-55, and then started looking for something that would trigger the sounds it made. And to do that, I needed a guitar synth controller...
The Godin was a special rosewood edition of their xtSA model (they were phasing out their use of rosewood in response to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a.k.a. CITES). Godin's UK distributor subsequently told me that it's one of just two guitars built to this specification that were imported into the UK. It took a bit of getting used to; it's a very different beast to any other guitar I'd owned up to that point. For a start, it was the first guitar I've owned that needs a battery; the electrics are active.
The combination of an ebony fingerboard with a 22-fret rosewood neck felt instantly right when I started to play it. I'm still not sure about the veneer on the body, which reminds me of 1970s G-Plan furniture catalogues, but the most important thing is the sound, and the Godin delivers in several different ways. As you'd expect, it functions very well as a traditional electric with a nifty combination of humbuckers at the neck and bridge positions and a single coil pickup in the middle. There's a quarter-inch jack socket for the output of the mag pickups, just the same as you get on any standard electric guitar. But then things begin to get complicated: there's also a piezo pickup built into the bridge, which is treated by a three-band eq with a volume control (you can see the four slider controls for it, just above the Godin logo on the guitar's body in the photo above). As a result, there's a second quarter-inch jack on the edge of the guitar. With that second output, you can choose to hear whichever of the mag pickups you've selected with the usual five-position switch, or the piezo pickup's signal, or a blend of both the mag and piezo pickups. But we're not done yet...
Because there's a third output; the piezo pickup is also connected to a 13-pin jack socket, mounted on the edge of the guitar between the first two outputs. The ludicrously expensive cable that plugs into it is connected to my GR-55. The signal fed from the Godin down this cable triggers the GR-55's synth tones, which are output to a stereo pair of jack sockets. The GR-55 also has a third output; this carries the GR-55's Composite Object Sound Modelling (COSM) signal. This produces a digital simulation of specific guitars and amplifiers by analysing and then manipulating the signal from the Godin's magnetic pickups, which is also fed down that same expensive cable. The COSM guitar sounds can even simulate a guitar that's in a different tuning to the Godin, which is every bit as weird as it sounds.
The end result is that with a normal guitar lead from the guitar's standard output socket plugged into my stereo effects chain, another lead from the guitar's blend output feeding the mixer with the mixed mag/piezo signal, the stereo output from the synth, and the mono COSM output from the synth all fed into my mixer, whatever I play on the guitar ends up as two separate, completely different-sounding signals in stereo as well as, for example, a mono acoustic guitar tone, and a COSM model of a Les Paul through a Roland JC-120. It sounds very complicated, and I guess it is, in a way. But with everything connected at once, the resulting sound is immense.
The GR-55 has a big user community on the internet. After hooking the synth up to the studio computer and downloading and installing the free patch editor GR Floorboard, I went online and took my pick from a huge selection of user-created patches. There are dozens and dozens of settings out there designed to make your guitar sound just like the guitars on many classic albums (I have one patch called Shine On You Crazy Diamond that sounds uncannily like the original). Other COSM presets enable me to instantly switch to alternative tunings like DADGAD or open C (and one of the patches that I downloaded from the web is very appropriately titled Devin Townsend).
It is very odd playing a note on a guitar and hearing it coming out of the studio speakers sounding like a grand piano or a banjo. Quite frankly, things often get downright silly. But for me, the best thing about the GR-55 is that its COSM module includes an emulation of Roland's legendary GR-300 guitar synthesizer that was released way back in 1981. I regret not buying one at the time almost as much as I regret never getting a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. The GR-300's distinctive fizzy tone is all over several of my favourite albums and being able to play a guitar and hear exactly the same tone coming out of my amp is a delight.
Although the GR-55 does a great job of emulating those Gilmourish tones, I'm still on a quest to find the perfect "Strat" sound. So far, the closest I've got to what I can hear in my head comes out of this:
Once again, this was a second-hand purchase from the fine folks at Intersound Guitars. As you can see, I seem to have overcome my resistance to guitars with rosewood fingerboards; in fact, this guitar has rapidly become a favourite. And with a 22-fret neck, it has one more fret than your average Stratocaster. The S-500 was introduced by G&L Guitars back in 1982 and I tend to think of it as the Strat mark II. Leo Fender (the "L" in G&L) introduced a number of improvements to his original design that include a much more robust tremelo system and some extremely beefy pickups. Rather than the Strat's volume and bridge and neck pickup tone controls or the Jackson's no-messing volume and tone, the pots are for volume, treble rolloff and bass rolloff and the centre pot can pulled out to enable two additional pickup selections: neck and bridge together, or all three. Plugged in to my Keeley Dark Side pedal, it's almost impossible to resist playing a few bars of "Money" or "Shine on..." with it. Exploring the difference in the range of potential tones you can get out of it as a result is going to keep me occupied for quite a while, I suspect.
It's also the prettiest guitar I own, I reckon.
The guitar that took my collection into double figures also has a rosewood fingerboard, but it's a very different beast to the S-500. It's pretty much built for metal from the ground up: a second-hand Ibanez RG770 from the very early 90s.
The neck profile and action on it are extraordinary, and the Floyd Rose licensed Edge tremelo system is ridiculous. It has a 24-fret neck, which has been my preferred arrangement ever since I bought the RG9-BK. This is a brash, shouty and very satisfying guitar to play. Through a distortion pedal, it's a cinch to get distinctly Satriani-like tones with it, and I do so on a regular basis.
But this is the guitar that is going to take my playing to the next level...
I've been waiting to bring this guitar home with me for over a year, and it's pretty much my Holy Grail of guitars. It's a Parker Fly Mojo MIDI from 2008. The three other guitar players I know of who play Parkers are Adrian Belew, Vernon Reid, and Gederic Byar, so I feel like I've gained entry to a very exclusive club by getting one. And that is great motivation for me to work at improving my playing!
The 24-fret neck is even more insane than the Ibanez and is made from carbon fibre. The body is sculpted from mahogany with carbon fibre bonded over the top and it weighs next to nothing, but the lack of mass doesn't mean that the resulting sound is thin; far from it. Like the Godin, it's active, requiring an internal battery to power the pickups—which means I need to keep a replacement pp9 or two lying around in the studio in case it goes flat, but the resulting sound is absolutely worth it. Apart from the two humbucking pickups in the neck and bridge positions (and there's a coil tap on the tone knob to get single coil tones when I need them), the bridge is also fitted with a piezo pickup. Not only is it a hugely playable guitar when it's plugged in to a normal amplifier, it also has a 13-pin socket to connect to my Roland GR-55 guitar synth and I can blend the output of the mag pickups into the synth down the same cable. There's even a red LED on the body which lights up when the guitar is connected to the GR-55. Like the Godin, the sounds I get when I run parallel signal chains into the mixer are immense; this thing is a monster.
I will no doubt prove myself wrong eventually, but right now I can't see any need to buy any more guitars for a while. For one thing—as is abundantly clear from the video above—I don't have room for any more guitars.
Except, possibly, that elusive, decent second-hand Fender Strat...
All these guitar purchases have had a massive effect on my playing. For a start, I've been playing more regularly than at any time since the early 1980s, so I've got calluses on the ends of all the fingers of my left hand once again. Secondly, I know my way around the fretboard better than I've ever done. This happened more out of necessity than anything else; after playing the nine-string, a standard six-string neck now feels tiny and I've had to develop the muscle memory for playing on necks of different widths. Both synth controller guitars have 10-gauge strings on them rather than my regular 9s, so my calluses are not only thicker than they're ever been, my fingers have had to become stronger. I've also had to clean up my playing style to help with synth tracking, which is no bad thing. All this means, quite simply, that I have rediscovered my love of playing the guitar all over again.
Over the last five years, since I really started taking songwriting seriously I've noticed a dramatic change in my musical abilities. Now I can—just occasionally—sound a little bit like I know what I'm doing.
When I was still at school, I bought myself a Decca Legato mono cassette recorder. I loved the thing, because not only was it a new way to consume audio, it also allowed me to create my own. I used it to tape songs I liked off the radio or the television and I also used it to record myself playing the piano or—together with my friends—recreate episodes of the Goon Show from my book of the scripts. All I had was the cheapest dynamic microphone imaginable and a few pots and pans for the sound effects, but it was enough to let us have serious amounts of fun. A few years ago I caught up with an old mate from those days (hi Paul) and those early recording sessions were one of the first things that we reminisced about!
When I started playing in bands in the 80s I'd bring along a small Philips ghetto blaster to practice sessions so I could record our performances and learn each song properly; the Philips had a built-in stereo microphone that worked well for taping live gigs. When friends started buying four-track portastudios and writing their own songs, I helped out—usually by playing keyboards—and as a result I got bitten by the home recording bug too, although I couldn't afford a multi-track recorder of my own and had to be content with being a guest artist on my friends' recording sessions. Eventually though, I got a four-track of my own, a cheap, secondhand Fostex X-15 which allowed me to start composing my own music. It wasn't the most sophisticated of units and as it had been well-used, it didn't have much in the way of a generous frequency response, but it served me well for more than a decade, allowing me to record incidental music for video projects at work as well as occasional forays into overdubbed guitar pieces for my own amusement (I certainly wasn't about to play them for anyone else.)
However, the thing about acquiring a home recording habit is that you always have plans to do something on a grander scale. That's been the case with me since I was a teenager, and I'm now in my sixties. When I moved in to the house I'm in at the moment, I made sure that I was able to put a room aside for my music stuff. Since then, the room has mutated from being "the back bedroom" into "my home studio", even if that title was largely aspirational rather than accurate. The change was a gradual process at first, but I really picked up the pace of things in 2020, as you'll see.
A decade or so ago I realised that my musical ambitions and quest for higher-fidelity recordings had rather obviously outstripped the results I was getting with my humble Fostex. I took the plunge and upgraded my recording facilities with a thirty-two track digital recorder, the Korg D3200. As you can imagine, that was a heck of a leap from the X-15. When I bought it, the Korg was very much my dream machine, because it had an amazing number of tracks to play with, and they were all recorded onto a hard disk drive inside the machine (meaning that I no longer had to keep buying fresh cassettes every six months or so). With thirty-two tracks at my disposal, I could more or less forget about needing to bounce down tracks in order to free up space for further takes.
The D3200 is also capable of recording up to 12 channels simultaneously and unless I suddenly form a band and take my show out on the road, that is way, way more than I'll ever need. It has a built-in set of effects that outclassed the grungy assortment of pedals I'd acquired up until then. In fact, the Korg made most of my older gear look dated: there is a four-band eq on every track, and there are more than 100 insert effects available (including a handful of amp simulators, some very nice reverbs and delays, and a set of more-than-adequate compressors, expanders, and limiters), all of which can be used on individual tracks or assigned to the master tracks. Even now, I'm still very impressed by how easy it is to use, and it rapidly transformed the music that I was producing; for a start, it no longer sounded like I'd been recorded through a pile of old socks! The Korg still gets used, too—but it's been left behind by developments in Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software that enable home computers to provide all the same functionality and much, much more. More on DAWs in a moment.
Although buying the Korg (and, subsequently switching to a DAW) had a huge impact on my sound, it wasn't the thing that has made the biggest difference to the quality of my recordings. If I had to pick the one thing that I wish I'd known about years before I finally discovered the fact, it would be something that in hindsight seems obvious: I needed to move on from the tinny little microphone that came with the Decca or the "Dynamic Stereo Microphone" that I bought shortly afterwards as an attempt to "upgrade" the results I was getting. It wasn't that much of an upgrade; I bought it from Boots the Chemist back in the days when they still had a home audio department (and that should tell you what the quality was like.) That was the mic I was still using when I took part in February Album Writing Month for the first time and frankly I'm surprised anyone listened to the results at all, but it's still tucked away in my box of old mics in the studio, more for nostalgia than anything else.
Once I discovered how much better my stuff sounded when I wasn't recording it with the audio engineer's equivalent of tin cans and string, I developed quite a mic habit. Let's cover my collection in order of the amount of use they get:
- If I want to get a warm, saturated sound which flatters my meagre vocal performing style in the nicest possible way, I use dynamic mics. I'm lucky to own a couple of the most iconic dynamic microphones there are: my most recent acquisition is a Shure SM7B, a microphone that has become the de facto choice for radio studios in recent years. It has a frequency response from 50Hz to 20kHz with a slight lift at about 150Hz that really adds warmth to things (if you want, you can switch in a bass rolloff and a high boost with two switches on the rear of the casing, but I like it fine with its factory settings.) With the larger foam pop shield that came with the mic in place, it's almost impossible to hit it with plosives or even breath noise. It's the mic I use for live streaming and I have it mounted on a Røde mic arm that I can swing in and out as I need it (and I bought the Røde stand after the cheap Chinese stand that I bought from Amazon disintegrated after a month of daily use; another lesson I wish I'd learned earlier on in my audio career is that you get what you pay for.) Having the SM7B within arm's reach means that it's also the mic I use for vocals on my demos, and the results are so good I'll often leave them in the final mastered version of the track. After all, some very famous pieces of pop history were recorded with the SM7B or its predecessor, the SM7.
- If I'm feeling in a nostalgic or retro mood, if I want to treat a vocal take as a proper performance, or if I just want to emphasise the low mids in my voice and add a sprinkle of extra warmth, I use a modern iteration of the iconic "Elvis" mic itself, a Shure Super 55. I've wanted one for years. I have it mounted on a retro-style upright mic stand right next to me, so I can stand up and record vocals, crooner style, whenever inspiration strikes. Before I got the SM7B, the Super 55 was my default mic for demos because just like the SM7B, its frequency response really flatters my voice. And with its brushed chrome 1950s styling and blue foam filter, it totally looks the part.
- For scratch vocals, voiceovers, and demo recording, I've used a Shure SM58 for years. It's a great microphone and Shure seem to have more or less captured the live performance market with it. This is primarily because you have to be on top of the thing to get it to notice what you're doing, which is great if you have a wall of Marshall stacks turned up to eleven twenty feet behind you, but less important in a studio. Granted, it's not going to pick up the minute subtleties of your performance, but for demos that's absolutely fine and even if your neighbour is using a band saw while you're recording your vocals, your listeners will never notice.
- In 2015 I did Berklee's free online course An Introduction to Music Production and it really helped me a lot. I'd recommend it to anyone who records their own music. Very early on in the Berklee course, the instructor said that if you want to improve the results you get from your home studio setup, the single most effective thing you can do is to "get yourself a large-diaphragm condenser mic." So I did. I got a really good deal on a Røde NT1-A kit which came complete with a dust cover and a proper shock mount. For someone who was used to recording vocals with a Shure SM58, the results were quite shocking. I discovered that my vocal takes had suddenly gained qualities that I'd not heard before. Hearing what I actually sounded like in the room (and I now have to consider noise from outside getting into a take—something you never have to worry about with an SM58) meant that I became utterly paranoid about how bad I sounded and ended up completely revamping the way I sang—because now I could hear the subtle details of what I was doing, not just the broad gist. The resulting improvement in my vocals still amazes me, and I started getting comments from people on how much more confident I sounded when I sang. That was all down to the NT1-A.
- I'll use either the SM7B or the Røde NT1-A for recording my motley collection of acoustic instruments, and they both do a fine job. Amped instruments are usually recorded using a Shure SM57, the only microphone that I have more than one of. One's set up with the Marshall stack, and one's pointing at my bass amp.
- While it's not a great mic, I couldn't let my father's ancient Reslo RBM ribbon microphone get thrown away when we cleared his house, so that's now in my collection as well. As the link below explains, it was offered in a bundle deal with Ferrograph tape recorders back in the day, so I'm guessing that my Dad bought it when he bought the Ferrograph 2N I mentioned at the top of this page. The Reslo is extremely noisy, has a very trebly sound and very low output so I suspect I might need a box to match its impedance properly, but I'm sure I'll find a use for it one of these days. After all, if it was good enough to be used by both The Beatles and The Stones (as well as David Coleman!) I'm sure that I should be able to make use of it.
I've flirted with miking my guitar amps, but I've never been satisfied with the results, and anyway, cranking my Marshall stack up to the point where it generates a decent tone (or anything above one on the volume dial, let alone eleven) would not endear me to my neighbours.
For about 20 years I recorded all of my electric guitar parts with my effects chain DI'd in to the Portastudio, but that isn't how old guitar effects chains were meant to be used and if I'm honest with myself, the results sounded absolutely terrible, with a tone that was tinny and thin. Eventually, though, technology saved the day. Now, getting a good sound is all about amp and cabinet modelling. I have a couple of Blackstar amps that do this: the ID:15 TVP in the photo of the Jackson above as well as an ID:Core Stereo 10. They both have stereo DI outputs, which do a great job of sounding like a huge amp turned up loud in a live room. I also have a Zoom G3 effects box that I bought for live work which also does amp and cabinet modelling. It has a decent library of different amp models to choose from, and the tone that some of them produce is lovely. Unfortunately it's kind of whiny if the power supply I use for it is having a bad day, but some settings are worse than others. With the right models selected, it delivers an amazing tone in the studio, particularly when the input is being overdriven by my cheap-but-highly-effective Digitech Bad Monkey boost pedal.
I still use many of my old pedals as well. After the latest pedal reshuffle and guitar synth acquisition I ended up needing a larger mixer, as my potential guitar signal sources have now grown to:
- a stereo out from the Zoom G3 via a JamMan Express looper
- a stereo out from the GR-55 guitar synth
- a stereo out from the Blackstar amp's DI jack
- a mono out from the GR-55's COSM module
The amount of cabling leading to various stomp boxes and A/B switches is getting more than a little out of hand and I am now buying those incredibly useful velcro-coated cable ties in packs (yes, I used the plural intentionally) of 100.
The result of all this spaghetti is a huge sonic palette that ranges from the incredibly subtle to the completely apocalyptic. All the sounds in the video below were achieved just with pedals—the output from the mixer fed straight into the camera and no amps were involved at all...
With the setup I have now, I can have hour upon hour of guitar-tastic fun, and I do exactly that on a regular basis. It's taken nearly four decades for my guitar journey to reach this point, but it's not over yet. It feels like I've barely started.
Parker Fly Mojo MIDI
Godin xtSA Special Edition
Ibanez RG9-BK (nine string)
Squier Custom II Telecaster
Jackson "Adrian Smith" signature SDX
Customised Aria Pro II "Stagecaster"
Hohner steel string Spanish guitar
Selmer nylon string acoustic guitar
Jaydee Roadie II Supernatural
Customised Ibanez Blazer fretless
Korg M3 Expanded (with Radias expansion)
Roland Juno 106
Roland Juno 60
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 Mk2 MIDI controller
The weirder side:
Moog Etherwave Theremin
Chapman Stick (10-string ironwood)
Roland GR-55 Guitar Synth
Marshall 100W JCM-800 head with traditional stack
(two 4x12 1982-model cabs, all ex Thin Lizzy)
Blackstar ID:15TVP 15W 1x10 combo
Blackstar ID:Core Stereo 10 2x5W combo
H||H VS Musician 100W 2x12 combo
Phil Jones Bass Briefcase Ultimate 150W 2x5 bass combo
Mackie ProFX v2 22-channel mixer (main mix)
Mackie Mix8 8-channel mixer (synth submixes)
And (of course):
Virtual Instruments and Synths:
Arturia: V Collection 8
Blamsoft: VK-1 Viking
Cheeze Machine 2
Ichiro Toda: Synth 1
Karoryfer: War Tubas
KLANG: assorted instruments for Kontakt
Leslie Sanford: Cobalt
Matt Tytel: Helm
Native Instruments: Komplete 13
Newfangled Audio: Pendulate
Pianobook: assorted instruments for Kontakt
Spitfire Audio: Abbey Road ONE
Spitfire Audio: BBC Symphony Orchestra Core
Spitfire Audio: Essentials
Spitfire Audio: LABS Virtual Instrument collection
Toontrack: EZDrummer 2
Toontrack: Superior Drummer 3
u-he: Tyrell N6
Vember Audio: Surge
Vital Audio: Vital
Waves: Flow Motion
Røde NT1-A (everything)
Shure SM7B (everything)
Shure Super 55 (vocals)
Shure SM58 (vocals)
Shure SM57 (amps, instruments)
Various Lavalier mics (livestreaming)
Canon Legria HD camcorder
Assorted DI boxes
Ableton: Live 11 Suite
Exponential Audio: various reverbs
iZotope: Nectar 3
iZotope: Neutron 3 advanced
iZotope: Ozone 9 advanced
iZotope: RX 7
iZotope: Tonal Balance Control 2
Melodyne: Studio 4
Movie Studio Platinum 15.0
Valhalla DSP: various plugins
And Waves plugins. Lots of Waves plugins.
It's all very well noodling around in the back room making stuff for your own pleasure; it's something else entirely when you let those results out in public. 2011 was the first year I successfully completed February Album Writing Month, or FAWM, a challenge that involves writing 14 songs in 28 days. Part of the challenge requires you to publish what you've done for other FAWMers to comment on, and once I'd overcome my initial fears it turned out to be great fun. Let's face it—the only way I'm going to get better at songwriting is by actually writing songs and seeing how people react to them.
Here are two examples, both recorded for February Album Writing Month in 2016, the year I went completely nuts and recorded 31 demos in the space of a month—a personal best that stood unopposed until 2021, when I wrote or performed on 32 songs in just 28 days.
Taking part in FAWM has benefited my musical endeavours in loads of ways. For a start, I've made some great new friends. Taking part was also what pushed me into updating my keyboard setup (as if I needed an excuse). After years of prevaricating (otherwise known as "research") I finally took the plunge and bought myself my dream machine—a Korg M3 Expanded music workstation. Since it arrived I've spent much of my spare time learning what I can do with it, although I've really only scratched the surface. It's a massively powerful synthesiser— even more so since I bought the EXB-256 memory upgrade and the EXB-Radias synthesiser expansion boards for it. It's a multiple channel MIDI sequencer; it's also a hugely capable sampler. It's given me access to believable piano and Fender Rhodes sounds for the first time since I started recording my own music and for me that alone made it worth the money. The brass and woodwind sounds are amazingly realistic and the string samples are mouthwateringly good. The M3 comes with a velocity sensitive, properly weighted 88-key piano keyboard with aftertouch, so it feels like I'm playing a "proper" musical instrument. The result? Since I started using the Korg I've fallen in love with playing keyboards all over again, and I feel like I've made tremendous progress in developing my abilities as a musician. If nothing else, the sounds I'm recording these days have experienced a quantum leap in authenticity.
Since I started doing FAWM I have really pushed myself to try and deliver a vocal performance that I could be happy for other people to hear. I was never been comfortable doing vocals, and to be honest for the first five or six years I took part in FAWM, that was still the case. But these days, although I don't consider myself to be a vocalist, I can listen to my singing without being tempted to just erase it all. Perhaps it's a side effect of getting older, but these days I can sing without being quite so embarrassed about it all. As I've already noted, switching to a large-diaphragm condenser mic a few years ago (a Røde NT1-A) for recording vocals helped me immensely, as I could hear more detail in what my voice was doing. But I eventually went back to using a dynamic microphone—firstly a Shure Super 55, then the industry-standard Shure SM7B—because I loved how my voice sounded through them. And when you're happy with how your voice sounds, I then discovered, you start performing better.
I now make music all year round, not just during February. Suitably enthused by the fact that I wrote over twenty songs in February 2013 (I overachieved quite a bit) I signed up for FAWM's big brother 50/90 for the first time—where the idea is to write 50 songs in the 90 days between July the 4th and October the 1st. I managed it on my first attempt, and by the first of October that year I'd written and recorded nearly ninety tracks since the first of January. That's quite a leap from the times not so long ago when I'd have been pushing things if I'd managed to record three songs in twelve months. I've taken part in 50/90 every year since and every year I've ended up with a tally of at least fifty new songs by the time October arrived.
After the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 prompted my semi-retirement and made me look for other ways to keep myself occupied, I took the plunge into the world of live streaming. I installed a copy of the free open-source broadcaster software OBS Studio, dug out my Zoom video cameras (both of which can operate as webcams), set myself up with my own channel on Twitch TV and started out on what has turned in to a very rewarding and interesting journey. My goal is to help other people get started recording music at home or improve the results that they're getting if they already have a space for making music at home. In the months since I started, I have learned a tremendous amount about appearing on camera, and I think I've got better with every show I make, even if something still goes wrong every week—a fact that is now immortalised in song with the show's very own theme tune and opening credits sequence.
Right from the start I archived everything I streamed to the YouTube channel that I'd set up back in 2011 but which had been largely dormant until now. The resulting change in my analytics prompted YouTube to send me an email that literally included the expression "OMG!"
Since I started live streaming, I've worked hard to make my studio look less of a tip on camera and it's finally become a proper production workspace. In June 2020 I finally bought the four-tier keyboard stand for my polysynths that I had been promising myself since the 1980s. In August, I finally found the ideal studio desk that I'd been dreaming about for over a decade. More about that in a moment...
All these changes aren't just for cosmetic reasons. I now have the time and resources to be a lot more serious about the music that I make, and I want to see if I can turn the occasional album sale on Bandcamp into something more lucrative. Over the past five years or so I think I've started to get to a point where my abilities are up to the task; whether the rest of the world will agree with me remains to be seen.
As my live streaming career progresses and I continue to take part in FAWM and 50/90 I will keep posting new music on both sites. I continue to release more polished versions on my Bandcamp page as well. Feedback is always welcome, but please be gentle with me!
In this section I've listed all the releases I've made online in the past decade or so. They're shown here in chronological order, with the most recent at the top. I'll try to keep this section as up-to-date as I can, but to stay up to date with my latest work, the best place to look is over on my Bandcamp artist page. I've experimented with a number of different ways of releasing music over the years, including getting my music on streaming platforms like Spotify and Tidal (if you search for Chris Harris, you should see a couple of the album covers below crop up.) After several years of testing, I've come to the conclusion that the platform that works best for me is Bandcamp. I've actually made money from releases there, which is more than I can say for the bigger-name platforms.
After recording over two hours of music (the equivalent of three albums' worth of material) for FAWM in 2021, I took a month off from my "album a month" production schedule and spent March in a state of twitchy, unfocused agitation. I really like the buzz of working on songs. When I'm not making music, I feel like I'm just wasting the opportunity to do so. So in April, I was back at work writing new material for the online songwriting challenge of Fifty/Ninety: The Prequel, in which I was set the goal of writing fifty songs in the ninety days between April 4th and July 3rd (and yes, the main Fifty/Ninety challenge starts the following day.) By the time Bandcamp Friday arrived once again in May, I'd written another fifteen songs, and they have been added to my ever-growing discography on the album A Decent Harvest.
I ended up creating an hour and 49 seconds of music during April, and as with February's release, I can really hear an improvement in the way I structure songs compared with previous years. The eight-part vocal harmonies were as much of a shock to me as they may be to you, though.
In March 2021 I released an album which collected together the highlights of my songwriting adventures during February Album Writing Month 2021. After listening back to the fifteen tracks here, I think I've made a bigger improvement as a songwriter over the last six months than at any other point in my musical endeavours. For a start, I've begun to go back and rewrite things if I think of something better that I could have done; I have also been much more mindful of cutting out the fat in a track. I've still got some way to go as far as that's concerned, but I've made big strides in the right direction.
Thanks to being out of work and stuck at home ill, I was pretty prolific musically in 2020 and that has continued as 2021 progresses. I've got to the point in what I do musically that I've started to set myself specific challenges in order to improve areas where I think my skill set is weaker. I also need to familiarise myself with the deluge of unfamiliar software and new virtual instruments that I acquired during the studio refit in 2020.
I've therefore set myself the goal of recording an album with one or two new bits of gear every month and when each one is completed, I put it on my Bandcamp page as a pay-what-you-want release. So far I've completed three of these albums, and each of them contains about an hour of music. I've been pleasantly surprised by what a good reaction each of them has generated. The most recent album in this series was the result of me focusing on the collection of pianos I have in my sonic arsenal these days, and it explores some of the concepts and wild thought experiments that are used in cosmology to ponder the ultimate fate of our Universe. The album's called Spontaneous Grand Pianos:
Just before Christmas in 2020 I released a collection of darkly cinematic instrumental music called Decembering.
I was really pleased with the sound I got on it and it took my approach to composition into areas that I'd not previously explored. It also reassured me that the idea of focusing on a small selection of instruments was going to pay off creatively.
The first of my learning project albums was called The Geometry of Sleep (mainly because I've been having trouble getting a decent night's sleep since I became ill). Each track is named after a feature or phase of sleep, and I tried to evoke that feature in the music. Again, it's available on Bandcamp as a pay-what-you-want download.
2020 also saw me concluding my experiment of releasing a "proper" album each year on all the popular streaming platforms. Frankly, from a purely financial perspective it's just not worth the effort to continue to do so, but I still get a kick out of being able to say "yes" when people ask me if I'm on Spotify. The final release in my experiment was another album heavily influenced by my prog rock roots, called Oneiric Tulpas.
Oneiric Tulpas is a companion to 2019's prog album, which was the first release that I made available on all the major streaming platforms. That album was called Beyond. You can still find it on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal and most other services as well.
I released revised versions of the demos for the album on Bandcamp as The Progress EP:
One track from the EP ended up on the cover CD for the May Issue (#98) of Prog Magazine, who described my music as "Leonard Cohen meets prog". I'll take that.
Back in January 2019 I set myself the challenge of learning Ableton Live's control functions and discovered how its conditional follow commands can trigger loops in random ways that can't be predicted ahead of time. The results of a weekend's experiments—creating truly aleatoric music—ended up as another five-track EP called Generator. As with my more recent learning project recordings, I released this album as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp:
2018's Bandcamp-only release was a prog-rock concept album revolving around the life of Mr Charles Hoy Fort, the iconoclast who coined the word "teleportation" and who spent his life finding events and tales that, he felt, showed science's unwillingness to accept anything that defied accepted wisdom, such as falls of fish or plagues of frogs. Fort was the central inspiration for my favourite periodical, the Fortean Times (I've been a subscriber for over thirty years). The album is called, simply, Fort.
My 2016 album The Blackest of Dogs contains the most deeply personal and emotional music that I've ever recorded, and I've been doing this sort of thing for close to four decades now. The "Black Dog" of the title is an expression used by people from Dr Samuel Johnson to Sir Winston Churchill to refer to their bouts of depression. It's a disease with which I'm all too familiar.
The songs on the album were recorded between July 2015 and March 2016 as I made my way out of the deepest and longest bout of depression I've ever experienced. Writing and performing them was an attempt to understand what had happened to me, to identify the sorts of things that would make the condition worse and, more importantly, the things I could do to help make things better. It was an intense journey of self discovery. People who have listened to the album are responding really well to it, which is very gratifying.
In complete contrast to the prog rock of my recent albums, back in 2014 I released an album of ambient music. It's intended as the soundtrack to an imaginary journey through The Kuiper Belt, and it's called Beyond Neptune.
Fort took me just under eighteen months to complete. I spent about half that amount of time making Beyond. By the time I got around to recording Oneiric Tulpas it went from conception to release in just three months. By the end of 2020 I was recording and releasing a couple of albums a month—so I'm breaking with the grand rock tradition and getting progressively (aha!) faster at making albums rather than slowing down. I'm such a rebel...
In addition to all the albums and EPs shown above, my catalogue at Bandcamp also contains a number of individual tracks that I've released in the past few years. And if you buy everything I've released, Bandcamp will give you a whopping 35% discount off the deal. I may be rather biased, but I think that's a fantastic bargain.
For most of the first twenty-five years that I lived in my current house, the back bedroom has looked like this...
For most of that quarter-century, I told myself that one day I'd convert the room into something that actually looked like a proper recording studio. Every time I stood upright at my DAW after forgetting that I was sitting under a bunk bed and cutting my head open on the bed frame as a result, I would mutter to myself that one day I would swap it for a proper desk and give the room over entirely to being a space for making music.
2020 was a wretched year for a lot of people and I didn't escape its effects. I spent most of the year stuck at home in lockdown on my own, out of work, and waiting for kidney surgery that I soon figured out would not be happening any time soon—or, indeed, for the foreseeable future. While the pain has been manageable most of the time, it has made sleep very difficult and it's left me feeling permanently exhausted. As I consoled and distracted myself from all this by spending most of my free time making music and cursing the less-than-optimal arrangements I had for doing so, I finally asked myself the big question that I'd been avoiding:
"If not now, then when?"
And so for my sixtieth birthday I ordered myself a milestone present: a bespoke studio desk built from locally-sourced, recycled materials by Guy Mitson at Chunky Studio Furniture just down the road in Banwell. The lead time on the order (Guy is much in demand, and a busy chap) worked out perfectly: when Fifty/Ninety drew to a close this year, I dismantled everything in the studio, put the bed on Freecycle, and cleared the back room ready for a serious refit. By the time that 2020 drew to a close, I'd pretty much finished.
I'm delighted with how everything turned out. I smile every time I open the door and walk into the room. In fact I'd go so far as to say it's been a life-changing purchase. It's certainly been a music-changing adventure; now that they're no longer stuck underneath a mattress that was absorbing most of the sound they put out, my near-field monitors can do what they're supposed to do. As a result, my mixes have (not surprisingly) gained a clarity and balance that they never had before. And the addition of a dedicated MIDI controller keyboard that is just there at my fingertips, ready to use, has given my productivity a huge boost. But getting to the point where I realised that a MIDI controller would actually be something I'd find useful is a long and convoluted tale...
When I started to use computers in music production, it consisted of me tweaking stuff I'd already recorded with the Korg D3200. Although the D3200 is a tabletop 32-track digital recorder that's so good that I can basically play something into it, check the mix and burn it to a CD without using any other gear at all, you can probably tell by the photos above that I've started down the long and very addictive path of noodling with Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. My first steps were taken by copying the audio files for each track from the D3200 into my PC (the Korg has a USB port designed for the purpose) and then using Flavio Antonioli's n-Track DAW to edit, mix and master them. If you're looking for a beginner's setup that will give your production capability a very cost-effective boost, I highly recommend it. There's a version available for iPad, too.
The thing is, there's always another bit of gear to catch your eye, and after seeing YouTube videos of what could be done with Ableton Live and a MIDI controller, I succumbed to an attack of Gear Acquisition Syndrome and bought myself a Novation Launchpad. It came with the Lite version of Ableton Live 8 and after recording just two tracks I knew I had to get the full version. A month after that, I'd upgraded to the full Live 8 suite and my production capabilities had gone through the roof.
Even better, when I fired up the Launchpad at an event in Vancouver a few years ago, it got a reaction of "Whoa! What is that?" from the science fiction writer William Gibson, which remains one of my proudest achievements...
It's hard to describe just how much of an effect buying Ableton's software has had on my musical adventures, but Live is now at the heart of all of the music that I create. I can't imagine making music without it. When Live 9 was announced, I ordered the full suite upgrade as soon as I could and I downloaded it on the day it was released. I did the same thing with Live 10 in 2018. And in 2021, I did the same thing with Live 11. I'm beginning to see a trend developing here.
When Live 9 was announced back in February 2013, Ableton also revealed that they'd been working with Akai to produce a dedicated hardware controller for it, the extremely spiffy-looking Push. I resisted buying one for just over a year, but eventually caved in and bought myself one as a 54th birthday present. It's the thing with the pretty coloured buttons (a major selling point, IMO) in the last photo above. The Push became part of my production workflow remarkably quickly, as I discovered that it provided a whole new way to have musical fun. I started out just using its controls for the Session view as a way of controlling loops, as this allowed me to develop the basic structure of a piece before I rendered it out to a WAV file so I could add the finishing touches with the D3200. But as I started using Live's built-in MIDI instruments more regularly, I found myself moving away from using the Korg M3 as a controller (because it's on the other side of the room and takes several minutes to boot up), and playing the synths with the Push's array of pads instead. Like the M3's keys, they're velocity sensitive, with aftertouch. The "Scales" button on the Push, which can be used to limit the notes available to you to those in a particular key or mode, has been a godsend. The root note of the mode is coloured blue, the other available notes are white, and notes that aren't part of that scale or mode disappear (you can bring them back, of course.) Want to play something in E Dorian? Easy peasy...
Using the M3 and the Push as MIDI controllers sparked an interest in software synthesizers. I've been particularly taken with the Wavetable synth that Ableton added in Live 10. It's jammed full of amazing sounds and I've barely scratched the surface of programming it. But I also ended up buying Native Instruments' Massive and Arturia's V Collection of emulations of classic keyboards including the Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI, because I'm still a synth nerd at heart. As a result, I think I'm going to be spending the next few years getting to know just what lies under the hood of each of these instruments. But the trouble with using the M3 as a MIDI controller is that it takes several minutes to boot up and it sits behind me when I'm working on my DAW. One reason that I've used the Push so much is that it sits on my desk right next to the computer keyboard; another is that when I switch it on, it's ready to go. When I ordered my studio desk, I decided to go the whole hog and have it built with a pull-out shelf for an 88-key MIDI controller. In December I took delivery of a Komplete Kontrol S88 Mk2 made by Native Instruments, and like the Push it's ready to use within seconds of being switched on. It also integrates smoothly with Ableton, and I can do most of my work simply by using the controls on the S88. Well, most of the time; I have noticed that Live crashes far more regularly since I added the NI software to my set-up.
Once I had one of their MIDI controllers, it was time to take a deep dive into the Native Instruments ecosystem, so I got myself a copy of Komplete 13. Just downloading the new instruments and effects that it includes took me over a day and I will be spending most of 2021 learning to use all the lovely new sonic toys that it installed.
All this software needs a hefty chunk of processing power. Live 10 started to push the capabilities of my studio's six-year-old PC way out of its comfort zone, and after it started crashing too regularly to be usable, I had to replace it. The new machine arrived in January 2019. Even though it has an Intel core i9 chip at its heart and a lot of processing power and RAM, I can still max it out if I get carried away with my VST plugins, but I love the results I'm getting with it.
For the first twenty-something years of my recording career I didn't spend very much time creating drum tracks for my songs. Short of going out and buying a drum kit of my own (which was, and still is a complete non-starter), I didn't really have any choice. The first drum machine I got was a second-hand Movement Sequence Memory Rhythm—one of many Boss DR-55 clones that came on to the market in the 1980s—that I bought from a music shop in Bromley. It really wasn't very good. In fact it was so bad I don't think I ever recorded an entire song with it. It now languishes in a box somewhere at the back of the studio. I moved on to a Yamaha RX21, again bought second-hand; at the time I thought it was a huge improvement on the Movement machine, and I actually used it quite a bit, although listening to its samples recently it sounds pretty dreadful by modern standards. Again, this now languishes in its original box in a corner of the studio, the battery that powered its memory storage now flat, and impossible to replace. I hate planned obsolescence.
Reading the manual for the Korg D3200 revealed that it had a quite sophisticated drum machine with several different sets of drum samples built into it. When I tried it out, it sounded much better than the Yamaha drum machine and it turned out to be much easier to program, too. But I never really used it much, because I acquired other gear that had even better tools for creating drum tracks.
When I first started to use n-Track, I rapidly found out that its integrated drum programmer not only sounded cool, it was far easier to create complex drum tracks with it than it was on any other drum machine I owned. As a result, when I first used it on tracks, my friends thought that I'd switched to using real drums. As I already said, n-track is ridiculously cheap to register and it provides a solid, useable DAW.
Then I bought the Korg M3 and discovered that its KARMA function did a pretty decent job of providing a drum track (although it has a few timing niggles). Because I could record its drum track simultaneously with the synth lines I was playing, it reduced the amount of time it took to put a demo track together by a significant amount—hours, in most cases. I could get a good enough result with KARMA drums that for most of the time I would just stick with them. In fact, if I wanted to perform an entire song on my own in one go, and sound like I was a whole band, I quickly realised that the Korg would let me do exactly that. After I'd had it six months, I was playing pieces of music like this:
But when I bought my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface back in 2014, it came with a trial version of Toontrack's EZDrummer software. I installed it, and liked both the workflow (using it as a VST plugin) and the end results. Once I was using EZDrummer to govern the tempo of songs rather than relying on the Korg M3's KARMA software, the M3's timing glitches were no longer a problem, because I abandoned the M3's drums entirely and switched to Toontrack's virtual drummer. As with other pieces of software that I have really responded to, I rapidly upgraded to the full version and I've been using Toontrack products to create my drum tracks ever since.
The thing with Toontrack's software is, it's expandable. I've bought a large number of the EZX expansion packs to expand the sonic capabilities of my rhythm section over the years. They provide a bewildering array of different sounding rhythm tracks and I quickly became hooked on getting new sounds. When EZDrummer 2 was announced in 2014, I ordered the upgrade immediately and downloaded it the day it was released. Then in 2017 I splashed out and bought myself a copy of Superior Drummer 3, EZDrummer's big brother. It really takes drum software to the next level. The level of tweaking and manipulation that's possible is awe-inspiring and I'm still learning to use it, but I have already heard a step change (yes, another one) in the results I'm getting in my songs.
Live has radically changed how I record music, although it took me a couple of years to realise how powerful it was. For a while, the way I went about things was much too convoluted.
Up until I started using a DAW, most of my gear was plugged into the Korg D3200 multitrack recorder, as it had a decent array of inputs, with both quarter-inch jack and XLR sockets. I'd bought myself a Mackie "Big Knob" studio controller (a lovely piece of kit) so that I could feed my computer speakers from the D3200 as well as the PC's sound card. It even let me record the PC's output on the D3200. As a result my recording process was... complicated.
I'd produce a "draft" drum track in Ableton on the computer using EZDrummer. Then I'd render the track as a stereo WAV file and copy it across via USB to the D3200. Once it was on the D3200's internal hard drive, I could import it into a new song, usually dropping it onto tracks 15 and 16 so that I could control everything with the first bank of faders on the multitrack. The drums acted as my click track, and the fills would give me a cue as to where the song changed to the next section (on the rare occasions when I was thinking that far in advance when I laid down the drum track, that is; in most cases, I'd just have five or six minutes of the pattern I'd chosen at a fixed tempo.) Next, I'd record everything else with the D3200. This was very easy to do; the D3200 appears to have absolutely no latency.
When each track on the D3200 was done, I'd export them as WAV files so that I could copy them back over USB to the computer, and then import them back into the set in Ableton with the draft drum track. As a result, each track would be perfectly in time with the drums, and therefore far easier to edit. I soon learned that using Ableton's "marker" function to indicate each section of a song was an essential step of production. Want to swap verse 2 for verse 3? Not a problem. Simply use the mouse to select all the tracks in between the markers, cut, and paste. Job done. Cut down the guitar solo to 8 bars rather than 16? Easy to do with just a few clicks of the mouse.
Once I was happy with the song structure, I'd fine-tune the drum track with fills and breaks that better suited the temperament of the song, and I could even swap the drum kit for one of the expansion pack ones retrospectively, if I felt like it. What a mind-blowing capability to have!
When Mel and I collaborated on In Shadows, our James Bond Theme for FAWM back in 2014, the fact that she'd restructured the song when I got her stems back didn't faze me at all. I just cut and pasted the different sections into their new running order and it took about quarter of an hour to get everything sorted. If I'd been working the old way on the D3200, it would have taken me days to do that.
This was all huge fun, but I eventually realised that I was going about things in a much more complicated fashion than I needed to. Why I was bothering with all the palaver of exporting and importing files between the PC and the D3200? Surely I could just record everything on the PC if I just got myself a USB audio interface instead? That way, I wouldn't have to bother with all that shuffling of files to and from the D3200. So I ditched the PC's sound card in favour of a first generation Scarlett 2i2. To start with, I still had to power up the D3200 each time that I wanted to record anything, because it was still acting as my mixing desk. That seemed to defeat the purpose of buying the Scarlett in the first place, but I soon realised that using an interface that only had two inputs involved lots of cable swapping if you had lots of different synths to record, so I ended up buying a standalone eight-channel mixer and plugging everything into that instead. The mixer's outputs go to the Big Knob, and then on to the audio interface and from there they are piped down a USB cable into the PC. It took me a while to figure out the best arrangement of inputs and outputs. When I drew myself a diagram of everything for the sleeve notes of one of my album releases a few years ago, I realised that I had a cable pair leading from an input on one piece of gear to an input on another piece of gear at the other end, therefore fulfilling absolutely no purpose whatsoever. I think that I've become a little more tech savvy these days.
With each update to Windows that I installed, my first-generation Scarlett interface became more unreliable and eventually Windows 10 would BSOD almost every time I tried using it. So in 2020 I replaced it with a very sleek Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 Mk2, which (as its name suggests) has three times the i/o capability that my old Scarlett had. It also has lower latency, which is nice.
As my recording setup expanded, the amount of cables required started to seriously get out of hand and was in danger of overwhelming the kit I use to record with. My first, stopgap solution was to buy a cheap Mackie eight-channel mixer which I could use to mix down my synth and guitar stereo signal chains into a stereo pair and then feed that into the D3200. But it wasn't long before I started running out of channels again. In 2020 I bit the bullet and made a much more serious upgrade to things, switching to a 22-channel Mackie mixer with its own selection of onboard effects. Its eight-channel predecessor is now fully utilised as a mixer for my four polysynths, which are now set up on a proper, professional grade A-frame keyboard stand for the first time ever (and that has made life much easier.) These days, the main outs from the big mixer go into the Mackie Big Knob and then into the audio interface and DAW; the control room outs on the mixer go into the Zoom Q8 for live streaming, and the tape outs go in to the D3200. The D3200's hard drive is loaded with a selection of simple drum tracks at different beats per minute, and I can import one to each new song so that I can keep in time and start writing in a couple of minutes. It's a fast and convenient way to put ideas together without having to fire up the PC and start running my DAW.
In most cases, though, I use Live from start to finish. It lets me work much faster than I could when I used the D3200 and then imported the tracks into my DAW via USB. It probably shaves at least an hour off the production time of any piece of music I make and as I learn more about how to get the best out of Live, the quicker I get at putting a song together.
The end results have less flubs and mistakes in them, too. Live allows me to edit most errors out of the mix by building a composite or "comp" track from multiple takes, and its punch-in and punch-out functions are so ridiculously simple and well thought out that I discovered I can even replace individual notes on a track absolutely seamlessly. Putting together a vocal track has gone from being an excruciating process of messing up one take after another to something that's fast, slick and focused. And if things really go pear-shaped, I just resort to Celemony's Melodyne software and pull things back into order. I was surprised to discover that Melodyne can be incredibly subtle and much to my relief, it hasn't turned me into a Cher sound-alike.
For monitoring, I made do for years with the set of Altec Lansing 2.1 speakers that came with the first PC I bought, back in the 90s. For detailed mixes, I tended to use headphones. But once the FAWM bug really kicked in I soon realised that I needed to upgrade how I listened back to the music I was making and I got myself a pair of "proper" near field monitors. Mixing with monitors requires a very different approach to using headphones; there are all sorts of reasons why the results you get mixing with monitors will sound different to what you get mixing with cans, and in my experience I get better results since I started using monitors. Compared with stuff I mixed with headphones, there's better stereo separation in tracks, they're not as boomy in the low end, and they feel easier to listen to. I didn't go overboard on the monitors I bought, settling for a pair of KRK Rokit 5's - they're very reasonably priced, and they're small enough to fit in the very limited space I have available, but they pack an impressive wallop. After some initial teething troubles (one of them developed an intermittent buzz and had to go back to the supplier) they've bedded in very nicely and mixing with them has made another huge difference to the results I get. Ironically, as soon as I moved away from using headphones for mixing, people started telling me how good my mixes sounded in their headphones!
On previous iterations of this web page I would draw things to a close at this point by remarking that I still wasn't happy with my recording space. I'd bemoan the head injuries I was getting from a setup that was crammed underneath a bed. I'd dream of owning a stand that would let me keep all my polysynths ready to play. I'd list all of the plans that I had for improving things, knowing that it was highly unlikely that I'd do anything about putting them into motion. That meant that all of my intentions would safely stay, in a non-threatening manner, at some indeterminate date way off in the future. But 2020—crazy year that it was—got me asking myself, "If I don't get off my butt and do this now, while I have the perfect opportunity, when am I going to sort things out?" And so all of the things that irritated me about my recording setup are now things of the past. Am I happy with my recording setup? Oh yes, absolutely I am. And the increase in both the quality and the quantity of music that I've been releasing on Bandcamp is convincing evidence of that. These days, any improvements I make are more along the lines of giving things a final polish to make them shine, although I suspect my livestreaming habit will continue to expose weaknesses in my setup that will need fixing (I had to replace so many cables once the new desk was up and running...)
But all of this is done with just one end result in mind: to get better at making music. The satisfaction of hearing quite how dramatically my music has improved in recent years is difficult to beat.
A final (yeah, right) software purchase that has resulted in a marked improvement in the quality of my music recently has been iZotope's suite of mastering software tools, including Neutron and Ozone. Since I started to use iZotope's stuff, my mixes don't sound as muddy as they used to do and I'm learning how to keep different instruments separate in the mix. iZotope's Tonal Balance Control 2 has also had a revelatory impact on the end results by showing me when I'm overdoing things at particular frequencies—and when I'm not doing enough. As a result of all this, I'm getting much closer to the sounds that I hear in my imagination before I start recording.
I mentioned doing the Berklee audio production MOOC back in 2015, but it's only been in the last year or so that the lessons I learned back then seem to have started to come together. I've begun to really listen to what I'm doing in a way that I've never done before. Rather than just throwing Ableton's mastering presets at a track, I've begun to experiment with different eq and compression settings, learning what they do, and finding out which ones work for the sort of music I make, and which ones don't. iZotope's suite has lots of new modules and functionality to play with, and as I started to use them with songs I recorded for FAWM and 50/90 in 2018, I was stunned by how radically they could alter the character of an instrument, or the character of the track as a whole.
In particular, I've started paying far more attention to transients, particularly on drum and synth tracks. Using iZotope's plugins to control or emphasise the initial, high-amplitude sounds at the beginning of a synth waveform or a drum hit can change a mix from a gooey wash of indistinct sound into a powerful, clear piece of music.
I know that this is a subject where I have barely scratched the surface. I have so, so much still to learn about the process of mastering, but at least it no longer seems quite the arcane and mystical art that it used to be.
If I'm honest, I've barely scratched the surface of any aspect of making music. Even after more than forty years of doing it, I still feel like I'm just a beginner. And so my musical adventures continue; I hope you'll be able to join me for some of them.
I've put a page together with information on some (but by no means all) of the musicians who have had a great effect on me - you'll find it on my groups page.
And finally, please join me in the studio every Thursday and Sunday evening on Twitch where you can watch me faff about with all my gear, mug shamelessly at the cameras, forget to turn the microphone on, and very occasionally come up with a new piece of music or two that doesn't entirely suck. It's fun!