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Chris Harris's Blog

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Last update: March 2019

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I've just released a five-track EP of full-on prog rock over at Bandcamp, and I reckon it contains some of the best work I've ever done. Why not give it a listen?

Progress EP

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THE CREATIVE DRIVE

It's a Saturday morning and I'm finding the urge to fire up the DAW and write another couple of tracks for February Album Writing Month has yet to wear off, despite the fact that the challenge drew to a close more than a fortnight ago. Combined with my participation in things like Fifty/Ninety, Inktober and NaNoWriMo my default state at the weekends has become one of making art in one form or another. I get twitchy if I'm not making something new.

It's not that I've made a decision to be a creative type of person; as I get older I've realised that there's little that's voluntary about the drive to make music or other forms of art. I hesitate to use the word compulsion here, but it sometimes feels that I have about as much of a choice about doing creative work as I do about breathing. I'm not complaining about this, far from it; it's just that I know that I would benefit from just switching off for a few days or so every now and then. The process of switching off is an important part of the creative process.

This week I've been listening to the excellent Robin and Josie's Book Shambles podcast on the way to work and the discussion in one episode turned to the way in which boredom used to drive people's imaginations and creative endeavours. Having to find my entertainment inside my head was sometimes the only option available to me when I was a kid, particularly on those occasions when I was stuck in a hospital bed for days or weeks. I got to know my mental landscape pretty well. But what did I use to populate that landscape? What media did I have access to that I could use to spark my imagination?

Books were the main way in which I got external stimuli, and I devoured any that I could get my hands on. If you want your kids to grow up reasonably smart, make sure that you have plenty of books lying around the house.

I've written elsewhere about how important music became to me in the 1970s, and the reason why it rapidly became an obsession is that I was starved of the stuff when I was a kid. My radio was tuned to Radio Caroline from the moment I got it, but in the late 60s and early 70s, access to my favourite sorts of music was limited to LPs and cassettes, and our family didn't have the means to play either of these until I was a teenager.

There were just two television channels in the UK in the 60s (I'm old enough to remember when they were broadcast with a 405-line picture, and in black and white.) Back then, what channels there were went off air before midnight. We didn't have a colour TV until the 1970s. We didn't have DVDs, or Blu-Ray, or even video tape. If there was a programme you wanted to watch on TV, you had to watch it when it was broadcast. If you missed a show, it was usually gone forever. Repeats back then were very unusual.

You may be surprised to discover that we did have video games back in the 70s. But even on a colour set, video games were played in black and white unless you had one of the really expensive sets, in which case they were played in green and white. When the second generation of games consoles came out, they offered a staggering five different games to play, but the most complex game available was Breakout.

I spent my Saturday mornings at the cinema. But if you missed seeing a film when it was released, you had to wait five years or so until—perhaps—it was broadcast on television. There were no home computers. There were no mobile phones. My generation did not have access to all the different modes of mental stimulation that we're used to nowadays, because they simply didn't exist.

The point I'm trying to make from all this reminiscing is a simple one: back then, being bored was easy.

The central thesis of the Book Shambles discussion was that being exposed to boredom is an essential part of your creative development, because your reaction to being bored determines your strengths as an artist. Boredom allows you to train your mind to invent things. Alan Moore reckons that it was years of being left to his own devices that has made him the fantastically inventive writer he is today. I'm not for one moment suggesting that I'm in Alan's league, but as someone who often had to make his own entertainment as a child, I can see the way in which boredom might have encouraged my own creative skills.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about our "Default Mode", the way of thinking that we fall into when we're not specifically focused on a specific task or concentrating on what we're doing. Our thoughts in this mode are rapid, unconscious, automatic, and associative in nature. These are all qualities that are important in generating creative ideas. Being able to access those associative ways of thinking on demand is incredibly useful when you're trying to come up with ideas for a new piece of work. And yet, just sitting down and thinking is seen by many people I've encountered over the years as being a complete waste of time. How wrong they are. It's something we should all do more of, because we are going to need lots of fresh ideas and creativity in the coming years if we're going to fix the mess we've gotten ourselves into.

I realised recently that I haven't been letting myself switch off enough. Sometimes, I just need to stop and rest for a bit. Always being on is bad for you, and stepping away from the internet every once in a while—shutting off that ceaseless torrent of stimulation that we're subjected to every day—is something that would benefit everyone, I think. I know it would help me a lot. Even when you're doing something you love doing, running at full speed day after day with no downtime is not sustainable. For me, unplugging and taking a break helps me to come back with a head full of fresh ideas and start creating all over again. I just need to remember to do so.

EXTENDING MY RANGE

My commute is 88 miles each way; this is why I work at home for two days every week. I don't mind the driving. It's actually easier than trying to negotiate Bristol's traffic, which is horrendous for several hours either side of what we used to call rush hour. I can sit in the car and listen to episodes of my favourite podcasts, and I'm sitting somewhere that is comfortable and warm. The downside has been that I was filling the Juke up with petrol three times a week. As gas prices continue to creep up, this is a significant monthly expense; gas was £1.09 a litre when I started my current job and it's £1.19 a litre now, and it spiked at £1.25 or more for a while last year. Buying a hybrid was an obvious way for me to reduce my travel costs. So has it worked?

Oh yes. Over the last two days the Lexus has averaged 59 mpg on a commute that features big stretches of driving on motorways and dual carriageways, and with a bit more practice I'm sure I can get things back above 60 mpg. On those parts of the journey where I was doing 40mph or less, the car's electric motor kicks in and fuel consumption drops even further. As a result, not only was I able to drive to work and back twice without needing to call in to the supermarket petrol station at all, but I also had more than a quarter of a tank left when I got home last night. I'll easily get 400 miles out of a single tank. I'm very happy with that.

The first car I owned was a Volkswagen Beetle. The controls were about as basic as it could get. If you wanted to switch the heater on, you switched it on and that was the end of the story; nothing else would happen as a result. Why would you expect it to? These days, things are different. Cars have so many complex systems on board and these systems are so interconnected that they've become logic puzzles that must be figured out. Turn the windscreen demister on, for example, and you may find that the car has closed the external air vents and turned the air conditioning system on in order to reduce the amount of humidity inside the car. When the defogger has finished its job, those other settings will most likely stay as they are, rather than changing back. If you're not paying attention, you may therefore discover that you've been running the a/c for the last half hour or so and your gas mileage has suffered as a result. Many things on the Lexus such as the windscreen wipers and headlights will operate automatically with their controls in the default position. The controls for the headlights are linked with the dashboard display lighting to ensure that the dials are as visibile as possible in varying levels of ambient light, but this means that the car may occasionally do something unexpected. At several points in the last couple of days I found myself asking "why is it doing that?" For example, I'd inadvertently set the dashboard lighting to its maximum daylight brightness detent, which isn't helpful when it's still at that setting when you set off for work in the dark the next morning and the satellite navigation screen is in daylight mode and glaringly bright (I turned it off until I could stop, read the manual, and figure out which control I needed to change). Once I'd set things to automatic, I got quite a shock the following morning when the car switched from night settings to day settings, all by itself.

Some things I have yet to figure out. The Juke would interrupt whatever audio source I was listening to if it picked up a travel bulletin from an RDS station. I'd got to work on Thursday before I realised that I hadn't heard any travel news at all. The settings I could find for travel alerts are all on, but I still haven't figured out whether the car simply doesn't play TP travel bulletins from FM radio if you're not listening to FM radio, or if there's a further setting in the massively complex audio system that enables this that I just haven't discovered yet. I've read the manuals, but I'm none the wiser.

Hashtag first world problems, eh?

EQUILIBRIUM, OF SORTS

I've been at home over the last few days. Whatever the stomach bug that I had was, it wasn't until Tuesday morning that I stopped feeling like death warmed up. And it wasn't until yesterday evening before my stomach started rumbling in a way that just signified hunger instead of rapidly impending cataclysmic doom. It's difficult to convey just how much of a relief that is. I really don't want to go through that again, thank you very much.

I've spent the last few days doing all the little jobs that haven't been done since I went to Spain, because I had other things to do in February, as I always do. I did basketloads of laundry. I waded through the resulting huge pile of ironing. I did a bunch of paperwork and other adult stuff that I won't bore you with here. And today I picked up my next set of wheels: a 2015 Lexus CT200h Hybrid. I've not driven it far yet, but so far I've averaged 62 miles per gallon with it. That's a satisfying step up from the Juke's 45 mpg and a giant leap from its predecessor the 350Z, which could only manage 28 mpg, and on super unleaded petrol at that. I'm hoping that I can get at least two full trips to the office and back from one tank of regular unleaded. I'm pretty sure I should be able to, but I will have found out whether I can or not by the weekend.

As is to be expected from a car made by Toyota's luxury brand, the Lexus is very comfortable to drive and has even more bells and whistles than the Juke did, including a motorised sun roof, folding mirrors, keyless ignition, heated seats, and a steering column that I have actually managed to adjust to a driving position comfortable for someone with average-length arms and legs like mine. The satellite navigation system is reassuringly complex and while there isn't a television camera for reversing like there was in the Juke, there are front and rear parking sensors that really get excited when I put the car in the garage. At long last I have a car that has a DAB radio fitted, although old habits die hard and I will still be listening to podcasts on a memory stick as my default commuting entertainment. There are multiple USB ports on the centre console for me to plug in to! I have already noticed that I don't have to turn the audio system up as far; the interior noise level is much lower than the Juke—which, for all its idiosyncratic charm and character, tended towards the boxy and boomy side of things, particularly at motorway speeds. The Juke also had the aerodynamic performance and grace of a garden shed; the Lexus is lower and smaller and considerably more streamlined. There's much less wind noise. And then at low speeds when I take my foot of the accelerator the Lexus's petrol engine shuts down completely and the electric motor, which makes no detectable sound whatsoever, takes over. That is going to take some getting used to.

I'll miss the Juke, but I am actually looking forwards to driving to work now. How weird is that?

SECRET SQUIRREL

I had some other news at the weekend which is extremely cool. I'm not going to share it just yet, but stay tuned for something awesome that I'll be announcing in a few weeks.

I'LL BE IN THE BATHROOM

I usually enjoy business trips, particularly when I go to somewhere that I've never visited before. This week I've been to Basel in Switzerland, but while the city and its people were, I am sure, very nice, I had an absolutely dreadful time of things. On the Wednesday night I came down with the worst stomach bug I think I've ever had in my life. It hit me very hard indeed. My stomach became so sensitive that I couldn't even keep down the Immodium tablets I tried taking to combat things. I threw them up immediately. I was too ill to leave my room on Thursday, and on Friday my colleagues were sufficiently concerned about my health to suggest that I ought to stay put for an extra day or two rather than risk travelling. I very nearly agreed with them, and in retrospect it would have been the sensible thing to do but by Friday afternoon I was so miserable I just wanted to get home; I hadn't eaten anything for thirty-six hours and couldn't keep anything down other than occasional sips of water. In the end I managed to make it back home without any embarrassing incidents, probably because by that point I'd got nothing left inside to throw up or otherwise jettison. I weighed myself when I got home and discovered that I'd managed to lose more than five pounds in two days. As weight loss programs go, this week has been brutally effective, but I really hope I never have to go through another few days like that. Being sick when you're away from home is no fun at all.

And I'm still suffering. I still have absolutely no appetite, but at least I'm managing to keep drinks down. For lunch yesterday I forced myself to eat the sandwich I'd bought on the way home on Friday, but it didn't take very long before I was regretting it. My stomach continued to inform me just how bad an idea it was to eat things for the rest of the afternoon, making a truly bewildering assortment of noises, so I think I'll lay off the whole eating food thing for a while.

I have zero energy right now and I will not be doing much for the rest of the day. I really hope I feel better tomorrow, because I really have had enough of being sick, even if I've now lost enough weight that I have dropped a waist size. At least that's some consolation.

AN OBSERVATION

Wil Wheaton will be 47 years old in July, at which point he will be the same age that Sir Patrick Stewart was when he started work on Star Trek: The Next Generation back in 1987.

Time is marching on...

FEBRUARY IS OVER

When February Album Writing Month finished yesterday (at noon GMT, when it stopped being February 28th anywhere in the world) I had twenty songs and three twenty- or thirty-second riffs on my FAWM profile page. That's a very good tally for me given that I'm working full time and spending long hours driving to and from the office. (The riffs, incidentally, were my entries for FAWM's Badass Riff Contest; much to my surprise and despite intimidatingly high levels of proficiency from all concerned, I made it as far as the semifinals!)

Something was different this year, but I'm not exactly sure what it was, or even why I feel it should be so. When I listen back to what I recorded, I seem to have been bringing my best game to things far more consistently than I have done in the past—which is a more positive way of saying that fewer of my tracks sucked this year. I also feel like I've gotten past something that was holding me back, but again I have absolutely no idea what it was or why it went away. All I know is that I've been told I sounded more confident, which tallied closely with my own assessment of my output.

The amount of guitar playing I've done over the last twelve months has definitely helped, though. Buying the Ibanez RG770 in July and the Parker Fly in December had a lot to do with that. I've been experimenting on the fretboard to try and take my playing in new directions, and last month I made a conscious effort to stay away from my habitual licks and riffs. I wasn't always successful, but I think I managed to do so often enough to change the feel of the music that I created for the better.

As always, after FAWM finishes I reflect on what I've done through the month and write up my top five discoveries here on the blog. This year, Chris's top five revelations are as follows:

5. Maybe I can sing harmonies

There's a joke going around the internet that when self-driving cars become a thing, country and western singers will start singing about how their truck just left them. This was much too good an idea for a song to let it get past me, even if the genre is one that I've always stayed well away from until now. So I took my big book of country music clichés off the shelf and set to work.

When I recorded the song Lost My Drive, I semi-deliberately pitched it quite low, because I'd decided that the genre demanded I sing three-part harmonies on the chorus. Singing harmony is not something I do, ever, but by staying low I figured I standed a better chance of not embarrassing myself too badly. When you're on the clock, it's all about making things as easy as possible for yourself, right? Even so, when I sang the top line of the three vocal parts, I sounded horrendous. I know I've written in this very blog post about not knocking your own efforts, but trust me—my voice was all over the place and it sounded embarrassingly whiny. Even Melodyne wasn't going to help revive that performance. I hastily deleted that track and decided that I would have to sing the third harmony part below the other two vocal tracks instead. Then I realised that I had to go very low to do that. I mean really low. Rather than transposing the whole song up a tone or two and recording everything except the drums all over again, I just went for it; this is FAWM, after all. And to my considerable surprise, I ended up hitting notes lower than I've ever managed before. The end result turned out okay, and when comparisons to Johnny Cash were made in the comments, I was very chuffed. I'll take that.

4. Don't give every track full bandwidth

Item number four is something that I've known for years, but this year I applied that knowledge more forcefully; the amplifier that's running your speakers only has a limited number of watts to give across the audible frequency spectrum, and you want to make that power count. You don't want to splash every track in your mix all the way from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, because the result will sound as clear as mud.

Each instrument has a sweet spot—a bunch of frequencies that embody the main characteristics of its sound. The human voice does too. Outside that sweet spot, you can cut a surprising amount of the signal out of the mix using equalisation but still have it sound fine when it's surrounded by everything else. High-pass filters are a good place to start fixing things. They cut out the low frequencies but allow the higher ones to pass through and any DAW worth its salt will have basic eq features built in. In most cases you are very likely to find a high-pass filter preset ready and waiting for you. There are few instruments that need frequencies below 120 Hertz or so to sound good; using a high-pass filter to stop them taking up that part of the audio spectrum will prevent them sucking power out of your mix. Leave the low frequencies for things like your kick drum. Allocating the low end just to your kick drum will help it to punch through everything else and have extra impact, which is exactly what you want.

For the last year or so I've been using iZotope's Neutron 2 plugin to process the individual tracks in my mixes, and this month I really ramped up the amount of cutting I did using its equalisation. I may have gone overboard once or twice (and I'll go back and fix things where I did at some point) but in general that extra cutting has left my mixes less muddy, more open, and generally sounding clearer.

3. Amps still sound better than modellers

I bought a Zoom G3 multi-effects pedal in 2016 and if the truth be told, I've been a little bit overattached to it. For the past three years I've tracked pretty much all my guitar parts by feeding it straight into the mixer that's connected to the PC's audio interface. Which is crazy, because I have a room full of some very nice physical guitar amplifiers all miked up and ready to go. This February I went back to using my Blackstar ID:15 amp for many of the guitar parts I used. And they sounded great!

2. Don't record (or mix) so hot

When I first started out on this home recording lark back in the late stone age, common practice was to have the peaks of your input signal just nudging the red on your VU meters (yes, I really am old enough to have recorded with equipment that still had physical VU meters on it). These days, digital recording means that your signals have much more headroom, the amount by which the input signal can exceed the amplifier's designed normal operating level before it starts to distort in nasty ways. In past years, I've exploited all that extra headroom to the full. But these days I've stepped back from that quite a bit when recording and much more so when I mix.

Nowadays, when I mix a song I start by adding the processing I need for each track, and then adjusting the volume levels (because it's pointless mixing a track's volume level if you're then going to add a six-second reverb on it that is going to push it way, way back in the mix or add a brick wall compressor to it that will add three or four dB to the signal.) As I did that first pass of volume adjustment, I found that my mixes sounded much more coherent when I rolled everything back between -5 and -10 dB. It also has the advantage that I have space to make something louder when it absolutely needs to be. When I've got the mix sounding how I want it to sound, the last thing I do to the mix is apply Ozone 8 to the master track. That principally involves final tweaks to the overall eq and setting a limiter to make sure that the finished mix doesn't end up too quiet. I've been delighted with the results I've been getting since I started doing this, to the point where I've been thinking about going back and remixing my old albums to see how much better I could make them sound.

That way lies madness, of course.

1. Confidence is everything

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, something has changed in the music I've created so far this year, and although I'm not certain, I think that a big part of this is likely to be psychological in nature. Since I went on a diet, I've lost two stone. That has had a big effect on my self-esteem, and I reckon you can hear it in my music.

As with almost all other things in life, when you play or sing music with confidence and conviction, you get better results. People can hear it, believe me. If you post your music on FAWM and start knocking your own efforts before anyone else has even listened to them, you are going to get told off, and rightly so; any creative endeavour that you undertake requires you to invest something of your personality and character in it. The more you commit to it, the more value it will have to you, and the better you will feel about what you end up with. And people will be able to tell that you do, so they will most likely do so as well. How people respond to music is seldom governed by the performer's technical proficiency, or by the engineer's excellence in the studio. Music should be about creating an emotional response from your listeners, and the more feeling you are able to put in to what you create, the more likely it is that you'll get the response you are looking for. Even if you only know a couple of chords on your guitar, if you play them in the right way, from the soul, people will recognise it. They'll know.

And that's where the magic is.