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Chris Harris's Blog

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Current: July 2014

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27 July 14 (permalink)

ANOTHER SUNDAY

I've been doing a lot of reading this week. This may have something to do with the fact that I picked up my new spectacles on Wednesday. They're lovely and light, and for something to try them out on, I swung by the Mall on the way home and picked up the first two books in Jeff VenderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy (the final volume comes out in September). I'd finished the first book, Annihilation by Wednesday night. By Friday morning I'd finished Authority as well. They are quite extraordinary works of fiction, reminding me of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's "Roadside Picnic" (the book that Tarkovsky filmed as "Stalker") both in setting and feel. There's a richly satisfying weirdness to both books that pushes all the right buttons for me.

One of my friends reminded me that the VanderMeers are touring the UK next month, and so I've picked up a ticket for the Bristol event. It will be blogged.

SUPPLY ASSURED

There was a small parcel on the doormat yesterday morning that looked far too small to contain a gross of celluloid guitar picks, but it did - all 144 of them. Yes, my supply of medium Fender 358s is assured and I've already been putting them to good use. I'm making real progress on my guitar playing and every time I sit down to play I realise once again exactly how much fun it is. It's also rather nice to look at the guitar rack and think to myself, "Now, which one shall I play this time?"

However, it's been so hot this week that on several occasions the studio was simply too hot to sit in for more than a couple of minutes, so my work rate has dropped slightly. However, I've now written 13 songs (and contributed to the event's first exquisite corpse collaboration) for fifty ninety so I'm over a quarter of the way to meeting my goal. I've also been busy leaving comments on other people's stuff. That's the part of FAWM and 50/90 that really adds value to the process, and I know that receiving feedback has helped me to improve my skills tremendously.

FAKE COMPETITION TOLD WHERE TO PUT IT

Just in case you thought television "talent" shows are where people can walk in off the street and show their stuff: it isn't really like that. Much of what you see is a carefully contrived sham and many of the "unknowns" are actually well-established musicians talked into appearing with the promise of getting their big break. With the amount of money involved, some people are willing to take a hit to their credibility for the chance of stardom. Others, like the Shook Twins, have a more realistic outlook. And that makes them even bigger stars in my book.

20 July 14 (permalink)

CLEAR AIR

I had an early night last night. After a couple of nights' bad sleep I could hardly stay awake in the evening and I was in bed by 10 pm. At least I was able to sleep; the thunder finally died out around four o'clock in the afternoon, and it was noticeably cooler and fresher by the evening. I feel more like my old self this morning.

Before fading out entirely yesterday I'd spent a productive afternoon trying out the new Telecaster in the studio. I haven't finished the track yet, but it's sounding good. As suspected, the Tele doesn't like high-distortion effects settings as the single coil pups generate a hum that becomes greatly exaggerated by the distortion. But on a clean setting it's got a great sound and with a bit of echo I was getting some interesting music out of it, even if parts do stray into The Edge territory. Today I'll write and record a set of lyrics and I should be done. Ten songs in sixteen days keeps me ahead of schedule. Hooray!

Speaking of distortion - I can't hear any mains hum at all when I record with the Blackstar now. The Rolls Buzz Off that I bought this week does exactly what it says on the tin without affecting the guitar's sound, and it's built like a tank. There are no controls - you just connect it in line. I'm very pleased with it and it's enlightening to hear what a difference the simple act of plugging a small box into a set of cables can make. I also find it fascinating how when something's off in the studio, it can affect your playing far beyond the sounds you record.

CALL ME JIM

When I was a kid, I would go to Saturday morning movies and whenever one with Jim Garner was on, I'd decide that he was who I wanted to be when I grew up. Rockford Files was THE detective show I watched every week. We lost a fine actor this weekend.

JUST ADD BACON

Blogged primarily so I don't forget about this, as I really want to try making these: Bacon Fat Caramels. Bacon-flavoured sweets? I'm there...

19 July 14 (permalink)

ONE OF THOSE NIGHTS

I didn't get to sleep last night, so I'm a little cranky this morning. I definitely need my coffee. Why didn't I get any sleep? Because a line of thunderstorms has been rolling over the village since one o'clock this morning. It's now 10:30 and they're still going. It was so noisy and the flashes were so bright that I gave up trying to sleep and took photos instead.

Getting going

BOOM

Thrown for a loop

I sat in the conservatory with the 50D set up on a tripod, and took a bunch of 20- and 30-second exposures. It was pretty spectacular. I'm particularly chuffed that I managed to catch the loop in the last photo. I haven't seen too many photos of a lightning bolt doing that.

GAS AGAIN

Yesterday I popped in to Intersound Guitars in Dursley to pick up a guitar strap and some more guitar picks.

Mistake.

This secondhand Squier Telecaster Custom II was on sale for a song. Apart from a few notches on the controls it looks like it's hardly been used. It sports "Designed by Duncan" single coil P90 pickups with separate volume and tone controls for each one, and a lovely maple neck which is an almost identical colour to the neck on my Jackson. It has a much warmer tone than my other Tele, with noticably more in the midrange. When I got it home I played it for several hours - definitely a keeper.

Ironically, I didn't get the picks I was looking for. I've been searching for Fender 358 guitar picks for a couple of months now, and haven't found a shop anywhere round here that sells them. They're my favourite pick, but the ones I've got are about twenty years old and getting a bit worn. Yesterday I decided to consult a famous web search engine to see why I couldn't find any, and the reason immediately became clear: Fender no longer sell 358 picks in the EU. What? Fortunately my brother reminded me that Amazon.com sells them, and they ship to the UK. So I ordered some. And in view of the difficulties in getting hold of them, I decided to order a gross of the things. That should keep me going for a while, I reckon.

GET THAT TWANG

Since clearing up the studio and putting all my guitars on a rack, I've been playing them all a lot more. The other Tele hadn't seen much use this year, but restringing it has definitely changed all that. The heavier gauge really brings out that clattery, aggressive Telecaster twang, and as soon as I heard it I knew I had to use it for a 50/90 song. In fact, I've used it for two this week. Here's the second one, which is a tribute to that most necessary of establishments, the corner shop.

I love the swing beats that come with EZDrummer. There's something about that jaunty rhythm that epitomises pop, and it always works wonders for me. For this one I was aiming for a feeling similar to The Divine Comedy but as I suspected, most people have noted stronger similarities to John Shuttleworth. And I can live with that; it was actually very hard not to start singing like John once the lyrics had come together, and the temptation to throw in the occasional "oof!" was very strong indeed. Great fun.

Despite all my good intentions on Tuesday (see below), I really couldn't get song number 8 to come together. It was a frustrating affair but the struggle obviously kicked something into gear afterwards, because number 9 came together in about half an hour the same evening. The lyrics pretty much wrote themselves. I love it when that happens.

After I've finished here I'll be heading back into the fray for song number 10. I'm already a fair bit ahead of my writing schedule to get 50 songs written before October 1st, but I don't want to ease off the pace at all. Apart from anything else, I'm having fun doing it. So the new Telecaster will be swinging into action this afternoon and we'll see where the muse takes me...

15 July 14 (permalink)

GETTING IN TO IT

I've now completed seven songs for 50/90. I was rather pleased with the most recent one, a heavy metal tribute to Charlie Stross's Laundry novels called CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN so it's available as a free download on Soundcloud. Here you go:

I've already started work on track number eight, but before I get back to work on it, I wanted to make a few notes on how things are going. For a start, I've tried to declutter my workspace a bit. I've set up a guitar rack; I got fed up of wrestling a line of flight cases every time I wanted to play a different guitar, so the cases have gone in the loft. I was surprised how much room that freed up. Today I'll be trying to find homes for a few more of the items that are currently just lying about. I'm beginning to appreciate how much a clear and tidy work area helps when you're trying to be creative and I suspect I will continue with the tidying up for a few days. But already it means that when I want to use a particular guitar or bass, I can just reach over and pick it up. And that's useful when you're suddenly inspired by a line or a riff in your head.

When I got the Telecaster out yesterday, I restrung it with 10-gauge strings. It sounds very good indeed through the Blackstar, so I will be trying that out later today. As I mentioned back in May, there's a preset drum kit in EZDrummer 2 called "levee" and given that a lot of Jimmy Page's classic riffs for Led Zeppelin were recorded using a Tele, you should have no difficulty in identifying what sort of sound and compositional style I'll be going for in song number eight...

I'm really enjoying EZDrummer2. The drum sounds I'm getting with it are pushing me to raise my game, just so that the rest of the sounds I make match the professional quality of the drums. But I've started taking notes so that I know which drum pattern I've used, as on a couple of occasions I've not been able to find the same pattern when I wanted to change it slightly; once I've dragged the pattern into my DAW, all I have to go on is the file name, which isn't particularly helpful once you've acquired a number of expansion packs as they all have more or less the same name...

I'm still enjoying the Jackson and Blackstar combination immensely, but I have encountered a problem using the amplifier for recording. It's fine if I run it as an amp and record by placing a mic in front of the speaker, but I've been recording loud stuff recently and I think my neighbours will start to object if I do too much of that, so instead I plug a cable into the amp's DI socket and record using that. This creates a physical connection to the 32-track recorder, and the amp instantly develops a very noticeable mains hum. It's not a problem when I'm recording loud music but on anything quiet it really intrudes. I've got a classic ground loop, I'm afraid. I won't be removing the earth connection from any of my gear (which is suggested on some web pages and YouTube videos as a cure) because it's fantastically dangerous to have no earth connection when things go wrong. Guess what ends up as the ground connection in cases like that? Yeah, you do. When I started reading up on the problem I was contemplating buying all sorts of expensive gear like isolating AC transformers, but instead I've ordered a much cheaper audio isolation transformer, which will break the loop in the audio cables connecting the amp to the recorder. When it arrives I'll do a comparison test and post the results on the blog. Reading the reviews of various brands has been enlightening, though. In every case, the one-star reviews have been written by people plugging the thing into a guitar effects chain, not an audio signal to a mixing desk or amplifier. Running an instrument level signal through something designed to operate with line level signals is not going to work, but this is always viewed as a problem with the equipment, not the person installing it...

FINDING THEIR WAY

Spoof rock website Over The Top Metal News (think The Onion but with rock hands) posted a story suggesting Tom Hanks would be playing Neil Peart in an upcoming Rush biopic and, it has to be said, when you look at the two gentlemen's photos side by side, there is a more than passing resemblance. But Mr P's dry retort on Twitter was even funnier.

10 July 14 (permalink)

SEEING THINGS

I headed down to Bradley Stoke yesterday morning, as I had an appointment for an eye test. I have my eyes checked every couple of years. I'm not as young as I was and I've noticed my eyesight isn't as good as it used to be, but I was pleased to find out it hasn't got much worse since last time. But all the same, it's time for some new glasses, which I'll pick up in a couple of weeks. I've gone for a set of ridiculously light rimless titanium frames this time, which I hope will be less prone to sliding down my nose. And as a backup pair of specs, I picked out a pair with a frame made by Quiksilver. Very funky!

NOT MISSING THE COMMUTE

After leaving the opticians I headed over to the mall where I had a nice lunch of yaki udon noodles and green tea in Wagamama, picked up a few bits and pieces from the shops, then headed home. I was back by two and I was glad I got home when I did. Bristol traffic is not good during rush hour at the best of times, but yesterday a lorry carrying candles caught fire on Brunel Way near the Cumberland Basin and chaos ensued.

SLOW PROGRESS FOR SOME

BT have now installed a large new distribution cabinet in Little Bristol Lane. It's about 100 metres further away than the old one, so I've had to downgrade my expectations of the sort of speeds I was expecting to get when Fibre To The Cabinet comes into service. I'm not sure why they couldn't install the new cabinet next to the old one, rather than the new, intrusive site they've chosen, I don't know. As street furniture goes, hulking green metal cabinets are not the most attractive of prospects. The old one was safely hidden by a hedge. This one most definitely isn't.

When I drove down Tortworth Hill yesterday the Openreach vans were parked up next to a big cable drum of fibre. The work to bring us superfast broadband may be continuing, but I noticed yesterday that the Openreach availability checker has slipped the date for the Falfield exchange from July to September, so I have also downgraded my expectations of when I'll be able to order the service. In fact, at the moment BT seem to be all about downgrading people's expectations when it comes to superfast broadband...

NOT FOR OTHERS

If there's one thing that's guaranteed to cheer me up when I'm feeling grumpy, it's making music. This afternoon I uploaded my fifth track for 50/90. Not the funk your mama knew was recorded in an unusual way. I set up a basic drum track in Ableton and sent it across to the D3200, then synched the delay line on the Blackstar ID:15 amp so that the first echo of guitar came back exactly one bar after the note was played. That meant I could play a lick, solo over it, and then get back to playing the lick before anyone noticed. I didn't know whether I'd manage it, but 50/90 is where I like to push the boundaries, so I went for it. I let the recorder run and played the whole song like that - it's a single take. I cut it down with a couple of edits (I'm rubbish at counting how many bars I've played in a verse) and then it was just a matter of getting funky with the Chapman Stick, adding vocals, and a bit of Hammond Organ, and I was good to go.

Very satisfying!

8 July 14 (permalink)

IMPROVING

The 50/90 songwriting challenge has been under way for four days and so far I've produced three pieces of music. They've all featured me playing guitar, and I'm happy to say at this point that my guitar playing has changed significantly for the better since I bought that Jackson. Here's track number three, for example:

The guitar sounds you're hearing are pretty much as they came out of the amp; I've just used the Blackstar's built-in effects and then added some compression in Ableton. I never thought I'd manage to sound like that, ever. Saying that I'm hugely chuffed would be an understatement.

The drums definitely help, too. I've used Toontrack's EXDrummer 2 software for all three tracks, and it feels like working with a real drummer. I think it sounds like it, too.

GETTING THERE

NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto passed a major milestone yesterday as it entered "Pluto Space" - at 29.8 AU from the Sun, it's now inside the boundaries of Pluto's eccentric orbit. To celebrate, the mission team ran through a full simulation of the Pluto encounter, which will take place in a year's time on July 14th, 2015.

Although New Horizons needs to be 30.5 AU from the Sun to be further from the Sun than Neptune ever gets, I think it's rather appropriate that I released my Beyond Neptune album a few days ago!

3 July 14 (permalink)

ANNOUNCING...

After many months of careful work, occasional spells of GAS and regular attacks of self-doubt, my new album about the minor planets known as Kuiper Belt Objects - Beyond Neptune - is finished. It's available, right now, on Bandcamp; just click on the image below to go to the album release page. You can listen to it for free and should you wish to do so, you can buy downloads of each track in high quality lossless formats. I've even written some sleeve notes so you can find out about each of the strange objects out there such as Haumea, which is spinning so fast that it's not even roughly spherical, but flattened out so that it's twice as wide as it is tall, and Borasisi, which is named after a character in a novel by the great science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut.

This is the most intense and prolonged piece of musical work I have ever undertaken. This isn't like FAWM where I sat down and two hours later I'd come up with a finished song. I've listened to the seventy three minutes of music that makes up the album over and over again, editing, tweaking, rerecording and even starting over from scratch in an effort to produce something I could be really proud of. And I truly am. There are parts of this album where I sat down after finishing the final mix wondering how on Earth I'd come up with what I'd done. Getting it finished and released has been one of my major goals over the last few months, and I wanted to get it done before 50/90 starts. I did, with whole hours to spare!

If you like the music that Christopher Franke did for Babylon Five, or enjoy stuff by Philip Glass, or Vangelis or Jean-Michel Jarre, I hope you'll find this album interesting. While it's predominantly produced using my synthesisers, there's also some guitar playing to be heard. And it's all yours for just £7. That's 15 tracks and well over an hour of music. It's a bargain!

CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC

This evening I'm having a night off from music making, but tomorrow it's all hands to the pumps once again as I start my yearly quest to write fifty songs in just ninety days. I had a whale of a time last year and with a new guitar waiting for me in the studio I can't wait to get cracking.

Best of all, a lot of my friends are taking part too, so I get to hear all the cool stuff that they produce. And they're a very talented bunch, so I'm looking forwards to hearing some amazing music. I'll be blogging about the whole thing as the challenge progresses.

1 July 14 (permalink)

GLOOMY, GLOOMY MATHS

Monty Python's Eric Idle has written a new theme song for Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox's radio show about the wonders of science, The Infinite Monkey Cage, and he got Jeff Lynne in on ukulele to help record it. It's a hoot. And I think I may have found the title of my next-but-one album.

The show returns to Radio 4 next week. If you've never listened to it, you're seriously missing out - Robin and Brian work extremely well together and they have some amazing guests on the show from the world of science. They also bring along some less sciency types to mix things up a bit, which means that you may encounter folks like Tim Minchin, Sir Patrick Stewart, Alan Moore or Brian Blessed during the proceedings. It's all huge fun and you can download every episode direct from the TIMC page of the BBC's website.

MEANWHILE

Work on my "Beyond Neptune" album continues. Last night I finished track number 14, so there's just one more piece left to write, record, mix and master. I have a few tweaks on the other 14 to do, such as making sure that one track isn't much louder than any of the others. And I need to finish writing the sleeve notes, too. But I've finalised the running order, and I really like the way the tracks flow from one to another. I'll be uploading the whole thing to Bandcamp before 50/90 starts on Friday. And yes, there'll be lots more this month about 50/90, so stay tuned!

SNEEZY

I'm well into the hayfever season now, and I've really been suffering for the last couple of weeks. Thank goodness the evenings have started drawing in again and it'll soon be over...

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