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Current: February 2017

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The Blackest of Dogs

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STILL FEBRUARY

Trying to write fourteen songs in February whilst back in full time work has really brought home how much less spare time I have these days. The work is fun and fascinating, but it eats up most of each weekday. Making time to keep the blog up to date as well as putting together decent musical productions has proved almost impossible. But the good news is that I've already passed my target of 14 songs, and as well as my solo efforts I have three collaborations uploaded to the February Album Writing Month website.

Things haven't gone particularly smoothly in the studio this week. The studio PC - which I nicknamed "The Monolith" - has been misbehaving since I installed Windows 10 on it, after which it developed the annoying and inconvenient habit of rebooting or switching itself off entirely at random moments, usually while I was working on a new piece of music. Over the last couple of months, this has got worse and last weekend it happened often enough to finally prompt me to take the back off and look at the power supply to see if there were any obvious signs of distress (there weren't) and make a note of the make and model number to see if there was any information about the problem on the internet. (There was, which is putting things mildly.)

Look up the HEC Compucase G7 Modular Power Extreme 950W Power Supply on Amazon and you'll see that one of the reviews reads, in its entirety:

"Exploded, took out entire rig. DO NOT BUY"

The review below that wasn't much better, either:

"burned out impossible to contact seller"

Mentions of the PSU on computer forums were hardly more favourable, so I hastily powered down the machine and didn't fire it up again until I'd swapped out the power supply unit for something from a more reputable manufacturer; I also made sure to buy a model with 80 Plus Gold certification, which the old unit didn't have. I went for a CoolerMaster supply, which I decided would minimise the risk of it not fitting inside the CoolerMaster Silencio case that the Monolith uses. It arrived at work on Wednesday, and I installed it on Wednesday night. CoolerMaster really go to town on their packaging. The supply was wrapped in a cloth bag bearing the company's logo, then wrapped in foam, and the accompanying set of cables was wrapped in a vinyl bag which again was adorned with the CoolerMaster logo. Was this really necessary, chaps?

I expected the process of disconnecting the old supply and removing it from the case to be a faff, and it was. I didn't help matters by managing to drop the computer case on my foot while I tried to access both sides of the case at the same time and while I don't think I broke anything, my toes have been turning an interesting selection of colours over the last few days and they're still very sore. Putting the new supply in and hooking it up to everything was easier, although my cabling doesn't look as pretty as the original loom did. I was holding my breath when I switched it on for the first time, but everything worked fine, and I can't hear any noise from the unit at all - now it really is silent.

Better yet, it looks like I've finally cleared the annoying fault that the machine has had since 2013; a tendency to make a faint sound like frying bacon. While I managed to stop it doing so all the time by switching from the system's internal sound card to an USB interface, I subsequently discovered that when it had been left idle for ten minutes or so, the noise would return - but would stop as soon as I moved the mouse. This now appears to have been caused by the old PSU's inability to put out a stable 12V supply, which in hindsight makes a lot of sense. The lesson learned, then, is not to skimp on the power supply when you're putting together the spec for your next machine. Get the best you can afford, kids.

A NEW GENERATION

I bought myself a treat for Valentine's Day this year: the box set of the newly remastered Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-Ray. I'm always a trifle suspicious of bold claims made by remastering companies when they release an old favourite of mine, but in this case they're entirely warranted. The picture quality on the DVD box set that came out a few years ago was, quite frankly, extremely disappointing. Everything had a reddish cast to it, particularly down the left hand side of the screen, which was particularly noticeable in all special effects shots, and the picture quality wasn't much better than the off-air VHS tapes I made when the show was originally broadcast on BBC2. For the blu-ray release, the videotapes of each episode were deemed too poor to use, so every shot was put together from the original film masters (the show was originally shot on film.) The difference between the two box sets floored me. It's like watching a new show, not one that is the best part of three decades old. I've been revisiting my favourite episodes in the evenings this week and enjoying them all over again.

AS CLOSE TO WINTER AS WE GET

It was trying to snow while I was driving home on Friday. But it was a very half-hearted effort and by the time I reached the A46, the sky had cleared and the Moon was hanging low over the fields. Overnight the snow reached here, and when I looked out before dawn on Saturday morning the lawns and cars had a light covering, but the roads were just wet. By the time I got up, the snow had almost entirely disappeared. Only the roof of the conservatory, which faces north, was still covered.

When I first started working down here in 1995, it snowed every week until April. There were some truly spectacular snowfalls over the next few years; one that unexpectedly happened during CBL's Christmas office party meant that when it was time to leave we discovered that the car park at Cribbs Causeway was now buried under a foot of snow. But the climate is changing, and the last couple of winters here haven't really felt like winter at all. It's not the same when you don't get at least one snow day out of things, is it?

FOUR TO GO

I spent most of yesterday recording more tracks for February Album Writing Month and it was a productive day: I added another three pieces to my song count. I've been doing this long enough that my workflow is a lot smoother than it used to be; ten years ago I would have struggled to write one song in a day. A lot of this has to do with the technology that's available to me these days. Rather than fiddling for hours with amp settings and microphone placement and wondering how loud I can turn things up before the neighbours start to complain, I just DI the guitar from my effects chain. If I want my "guitar playing in a hollowed-out asteroid" sound, I feed that signal into my Blackstar amp and then feed the amp's DI output into the computer instead. I still record Stick and bass the old-fashioned way, with an SM57 pointed at my bass amp, but even the results I get that way have improved tremendously since I got my new bass amp. If I need to play keyboards, the M3 provides a quite ridiculous range of sampled instruments and full-on synth patches. Sometimes I just keep things entirely inside Ableton and play using the Ableton Push. From all this it's pretty clear I've got a massive sonic palette to choose from. But this year I can't seem to find a singing voice I'm happy with. As a result, I've focused more on instrumentals. One of these features sounds created with a free plugin for Ableton from the whalesynth site, which allows you to make whale noises. You don't need Ableton to hear the synth, though: visit the site and you can have a play with the sounds in your browser. Be warned, it's very addictive!

HIDEAWAY

I've been feeling under the weather for the last week or so. I'm very run down (as usual for this time of year), my feet hurt (long story) and I have a strong urge to just climb under the duvet and go back to sleep. But instead I retreat to my back bedroom, where I've been making music as part of this year's February Album Writing Month challenge. The room is set up as my recording studio, but as there's also a bed and a set of bookcases in there things get a little cramped, to say the least. The overall feel is cave-like, which is probably why I enjoy spending so much time in there at this time of year.

Although things kicked off at the FAWM site on Wednesday, I didn't get started at all until until the weekend. But yesterday was a very productive day and I'm now ahead of my target with four pieces of music recorded. And I'll be spending the rest of today in there, too: one of the most important aspects of the month is making sure I listen to and comment on the music that other people taking part have produced, and I make sure to give it all a decent listen on proper studio monitors. There are some very talented songwriters and musicians taking part, and I've made some good friends as a result of joining in. It's always a joy to discover someone who shares some of your musical influences and it's even more fun spotting those influences cropping up in new music.

You don't have to be taking part in the challenge to listen to the music that's being produced. As a way of entertaining yourself for a few hours there are few things better than listening to what people are coming up with. There's a huge variey of genres involved, from Finnish black metal to campfire folk, and from girl-with-ukulele songwriters to prog-rock weirdos (which is pretty much where I come in). Give the site a listen, it's fun!

END OF AN ERA

Legendary rockers Black Sabbath played their last ever gig yesterday at the NEC in Birmingham. Their music was a big part of my teenage years, not least because they were local boys made good; most of the band lived in one or other of the small villages dotted around Stafford. I still have their early albums on vinyl from back then and they've been played and played. My favourites, like 1973's extraordinary album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, I also have on CD. I got to see them in concert a few times over the years, both with Ozzy and with other singers including the late, great Ronnie James Dio and they were always entertaining. It's sad to see them bow out, but after nearly fifty years of gigging they deserve a bit of a rest!