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Chris Harris's Blog

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Last update: February 2021

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My latest release on Bandcamp is an hour of instrumental music called Spontaneous Grand Pianos and I'm really very proud of this one in a "Is that really me doing that?" kind of way. It's a pay-what-you-want deal, too (and that includes free, because I know times are hard for everyone right now.) Give it a listen!

My most recent commercial album Oneiric Tulpas is available on Bandcamp! You can also check it out on Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Tidal and all your other favourite streaming services. My previous album Beyond is also on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal and the rest as well.

My earlier albums Generator and Fort are also available at Bandcamp, together with a large collection of other music from me.

GOING LIVE

I was so excited about the launch of Ableton Live 11 yesterday that I was up and dressed by 7:30 am, which is a freakishly rare occurrence for me these days. In the end, it turned out that I could have stayed in bed—to manage their server load effectively, Ableton did a phased rollout of payment emails for people with pre-orders, and I didn't actually get to the point of clicking on the "download" button until nearly 1 pm. I thought that the download of Live 11 suite was surprisingly small (it was 2.2 Gb) until I realised that all the new packs that come with the new release, such as Spitfire Audio's Grand Piano, String Quartet, and Brass Quartet packs, would need to be downloaded separately (although Live can do all of this internally without you having to faff round with zip files.) Some of the new production tools were fairly small and thanks to my fairly decent Internet connection, they could be downloaded and installed quickly but others, like the prodigious and brand-spanking-new Drone Lab pack, were much larger. Drone Lab was over eight Gigabytes, and several others were over 4 Gb. In the end, I think the grand total of stuff to download during the afternoon exceeded 30 Gb by a comfortable margin. The new version of Ableton is a much more muscular beast than its predecessor. Live 10 had a footprint of about 2.5 Gb on my C: drive, but Live 11 is nearly a whole gigabyte larger.

Rather than sitting around watching the progress clocks in Live 11 spin round, I started using it, firstly with a piece that I'd started during the morning as I waited for my email. One of the first things I noticed was that Live 11 has revised the file format for live sets, so while you can open a set created in an earlier version of Live, when you click on the Save option to save it, you get a warning message telling you you need to save it as a new file to avoid compatibility issues. This wasn't entirely unexpected, as it happened on an earlier update (I think from Live 8 to Live 9) and as should be expected from a program that takes up nearly half as much space again as its predecessor, the new version does a lot more than earlier versions, particularly with MIDI information.) But I had no problems with loading a set and working on it while all those packs arrived on my machine.

I'd got all the elements of Live 11 assembled and marshalled into shape by teatime, so after a break for something to eat (which I realised was the first food I'd had since eight that morning) I sat down to make something with that immense Drone Lab pack that I mentioned earlier. I'll be revealing the results on my Twitch livestream tomorrow, but I was mightily impressed with it. If you're in to ominous ambient soundscapes, it will be very much your kind of thing.

I was a bit disappointed with the hybrid reverb, to be honest. It sounds lovely, but the combination of algorithmic and convolution reverbs requires a new file type for preset files, and it doesn't access the library of Impulse Response files that comes with the Max For Live Convolution Reverb Pro; unlike the M4L instrument, which stores IRs in a subdirectory of the Max For Live Essentials section of your Ableton User Library, Hybrid Reverb stores presets within the main program directory where you installed Live 11 on your computer (in my case, in the Program Data\Ableton directory on my C: drive.) You can still use the old IRs with Hybrid Reverb—in fact you can use any audio file with it—but you have to find them in Live's explorer (or another file management program on your machine) and drop them on to the Hybrid Reverb's interface. This is going to become a bit of a faff if you're as obsessed with getting the perfect reverb affect for your music as I am and have accumulated a large collection of third-party and custom-made IRs over the years.

Today I have decided to play with the new "Inspired by Nature" set of effects to see what sort of potential they have. I'm sure that I will end up talking about everything I discover over the next day or two in tomorrow night's show.

Both the tracks I recorded yesterday counted as submissions to FAWM, so I have now completed a FAWM-and-a-half of twenty-one songs. With the massive hit of inspiration that new gear always brings me, I'm sure that I'll be further adding to that tally during the rest of the week.

RACING AHEAD

Several of the pieces I have been working on with other FAWMers this month have now come to fruition and as well as those, I have been very busy working in the studio for the past few days. Apart from anything else, when all my gear's been running for an hour or so it's by far the warmest room in the house—after I set the heating back to its standard settings this week (the weather has turned considerably milder) I haven't needed to switch it on during the day at all. Not only have I stayed nice and toasty, I now have a grand total of nineteen songs posted to my FAWM profile and there's still the best part of a week left for further submissions (the site will allow new songs to be added up until noon on Monday March 1st, as that's when it stops being February anywhere in the world.)

Song 19 is about the imminent release of Ableton Live 11, which drops tomorrow. I will be making a concerted effort to get out of bed at a more sensible time so that I can install it and get writing songs and getting to grips with all its new features as early in the day as I possibly can. I am more excited about tomorrow than I was about it being Christmas back in December, that's how excited I am. It's more than three years since Live 10 was released (back on the 6th February 2018); this sort of thing doesn't happen every day, you know.

I managed to contain my excitement during the majority of Sunday's show on Twitch. I played three of the collaborations that were finished over the weekend, and I also played two other pieces that I'd written by myself (because even though I've already "won" FAWM this year by writing fourteen songs, sitting in the studio making music has become a thing which I do every day. It's fun!)

As I mentioned in the show, the song Pattern Reinforcement that I played on Thursday's show turned out to be the 800th song that I've written since I signed up for FAWM back in February 2009. FAWM got me completely obsessed with exploring different aspects of what being a songwriter means on a practical level, and I've become a far better musician as a result of taking part over the years. I have a feeling it won't be that long before my song count hits four figures because even between events like FAWM and Fifty/Ninety I'm writing at least a dozen songs (or instrumentals) every month these days. That's 144 a year as a minimum bound on my output, if there aren't any major changes to my current lifestyle.

And with any luck, the improved workflow in Live 11 should increase the speed at which I can write more stuff. I guess I'll find out this week.

I WON FAWM!

Last night's live stream was my fortieth Thursday evening show. How on Earth did that happen, eh? I only had one piece of new music to share yesterday as I've spent most of this week working on collaborations with other participants on FAWM, but even so, I managed to keep going for the best part of ninety minutes—even the edited highlights last for more than seventy minutes...

Then today I was able to finish off one of those collabs and post it to the FAWM website. And with The Petting Zoo From Hell, I have crossed the finish line and made it to my target of writing at least fourteen songs this month. Hooray!

It's very silly indeed (there are penguins, and a dinosaur) but when I got Juha's parts back, I decided that I would add some bursts of triple guitar harmonies at the last minute, and I'm rather pleased that I did; they sound most excellent, even if I say so myself.

OBSESSING

I really didn't want to get out of bed today. I must have turned over and switched the alarm clock off this morning, because when I next woke up it was after ten o'clock. I hate feeling like this. Even after a frankly ridiculous eleven hours' sleep, I feel exhausted. I suspect that without the antidepressants I'm taking at the moment, I'd be feeling very down. Partly this is because of lockdown, because I've been shut in here on my own with no bubble whatsoever for way, way too long. The solitude has been really getting to me since before Christmas and I really miss hanging out with my friends. Partly it's because it's the tail end of winter and the outside world is particularly drab and gloomy at the moment; yesterday there was torrential rain here for most of the afternoon as well as a sharp and quite nasty hail storm. Right now it's raining heavily and the living room is dark enough to have stopped the cuckoo clock next to my desk from sounding the hour. But I'm pretty sure that it's also because it's February Album Writing Month at the moment. Much as I love taking part, I have to be careful about just how deeply involved I get. Now that I'm a moderator, I have even more reason to hang around the site than I did in previous years, and I have been spending a lot of time there listening, commenting, and suspending the occasional profile created by SEO n00bs and spammers, to say nothing of actually promoting my own musical activities.

I tend to get a bit obsessed when I start working on music. Now that I have a very comfortable chair in the studio, the principal reason that would force me to get up and stretch my legs every so often has gone away. With the old chair, breaks were necessary in order for me to get the feeling back in my backside, and I would usually go down to the kitchen and refill my drink bottle while I did so. But this month I've found myself dropping into flow more often because the new chair does not end up distracting me (which is good) and neglecting my physical well-being as a result (which isn't). On several occasions in the last week I've told myself I'd just work for forty minutes or so and then take a break and then when I eventually remembered to look at the clock in front of me, I realised that I'd been working solidly for more than three hours and not noticed the passing of time.

In a way, this is reassuring. It shows me that I am still capable of the long periods of sustained (nay, obsessive) focus I could pull off when I was younger. They were the principal reason why I ended up being a half-decent comics artist. They have also played a big part in moving my musical development along over the years. But now that I'm in my sixties, my body needs a lot more care and attention than it used to, and I've been neglecting it this month. I need to look after body as well as mind, and spending hour after hour sitting in front of my Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) without taking a break is not good for my health.

But in the last week or so I've been trying hard not to let writing songs for FAWM completely take over my life, because I could feel myself falling down the rabbit hole. I've been making concerted efforts to do things not related to music and give my brain a chance to unwind a bit. On Monday night I sat down in front of the TV and watched all three of the Bill and Ted movies, back to back (and I cried like a baby at the end of the third; the emotional hit of the titular heroes realising something important—which I'm not going to spoil for you—hit home hard. It's very well done.) But I felt completely drained afterwards. I haven't really perked up since. And this is while being on antidepressants, remember.

Then (of course) I felt guilty for taking time off FAWM instead of spending Monday working through the list of collaborations that I'd promised people, so yesterday I was back in the studio making more music and sending dropbox links to the results off to people. Although those tracks are by no means finished, they will bring my tally for the month so far up to fourteen songs. I had therefore already hit the FAWM target after just sixteen days. You would be forgiven for thinking that this means I'm no longer feeling such pressure to make more music, but this is not so; "winning" FAWM will not stop me from working on more music, because I have more promised collaborations to work on, and that's what I will be doing for the rest of the day.

But even after my habitual giant bowl of breakfast coffee this morning, I still feel groggy and very out-of-sorts. The whole getting obsessed thing means that I've been neglecting my fluid intake recently (I was told by the surgeon that I need to drink at least 2.5 litres a day to stop my kidney stone from developing further) and although my daily intake hasn't been much below that figure, I suspect that not having enough to drink is at least partly responsible for making me feel so rough. I've therefore been drinking a lot of weak squash today. I'm sure that doing so will also encourage me to take more frequent breaks. I'm fed up with feeling ill. I want to feel like I used to do...

IN THE PICTURE

Three weeks after writing the new theme tune for my live streams, I have finally gotten round to creating a new opening credits sequence for it, and the new show open got its first airing last night...

I'm going to tweak it for the next show, as there are a couple of things that I should have done differently, but in terms of a retrospective of how far I've come with these shows since I started doing them back in May last year I think it works rather well. The back bedroom is almost unrecognisable compared to what it used to look like, and I think I'm justified in saying that both the music I'm making and the shows that I'm streaming now have improved tremendously over the course of the last forty weeks.

WARMING UP

After almost a week of sub-zero temperatures outside the cold snap has finally broken and today the temperature had reached double figures by the middle of the afternoon. It's a welcome relief.

I'm still going to leave the central heating on for extended periods of time during the day, though. And I will continue to spend most of my time in the studio, because not only is February Album Writing Month still in progress, the house also ends up a good five or six degrees warmer upstairs at the moment. As I mentioned on the show last night, I'd now got twelve songs under my belt for this year's challenge by half-way through the month, so I am doing well.

But this evening I'm going to take some time off and do things that are not related to music. I'm going to chill out for a while instead.

WHAT DAY IS IT?

I spent a good half an hour this afternoon thinking that today was Saturday. As we move into the last days of winter, the days are all beginning to run into one another and I completely lost track of time. And this happened even though I measure the passing weeks at the moment by when a new episode of WandaVision drops and I'd already watched today's episode; after having one of the major plot developments of last week's show ruined for me thanks to Twitter, I now make very sure that I see new episodes of popular shows before venturing forth on to social media.

I suspect that today's befuddlement is because I had a lousy night's sleep last night. I woke up this morning feeling particularly groggy and I was very thankful that I didn't have to do anything more challenging today than get out of bed, make myself a coffee, and start on editing last night's live stream on Twitch before uploading it to YouTube. I have managed to carry this off successfully.

But I'm not pushing myself today. I'm tired and not particularly with it and I still don't feel warm, even though it's five degrees warmer here in the living room than it was a few days ago. I'll continue to work on music for FAWM (because the studio is nice and warm) but I am going to sit in front of the TV with a glass of wine later, and I will probably end up doing the same thing for a large chunk of the weekend.

O RLY?

I know that context is everything but the fact that a team consisting of people who had no background in seismology at all have managed to come up with a better machine learning system for predicting artificial earthquakes than the seismologists running the experiment has proved amusing enough for the story to go viral this afternoon. The fact that one set of participants had a cartoonist on the team amused me no end; the article doesn't say who the cartoonist was, and over four-and-a-half thousand teams took part according to the paper summarising the results, but if it turned out to be XKCD's Randall Munroe I wouldn't be even the tiniest bit surprised.

CREATURE COMFORTS

After spending the last couple of days intermittently shivering, I caved in last night and adjusted the central heating so that it comes on for longer in the day and stays on later in the evening. It has been very cold here for the last few days; last night it dropped to -4°C outside and I've seen the occasional flake of snow drift past the window this morning, although right now the Sun is shining. After doing the shopping on Monday I didn't feel like I'd thawed out again until I got into bed last night, and that was only because I'd resumed the habit of filling a hot water bottle at bedtime. Getting cold noticeably increases the discomfort I'm in at the moment, so staying warm has become rather more of a priority than it has been in previous winters.

Yesterday afternoon the temperature here at my desk read just 13°C because I'd spent most of the day upstairs in the bedroom studio (where it was a more comfortable 18°C.) With the new timings on the central heating in effect it's 20°C in the living room right now, but I'm still wearing one of my more heavy-duty fleeces over a long-sleeved rugby shirt and I still feel like I'm about to start shivering again.

So I will be heading back upstairs, where it's a couple of degrees warmer, to work on some more music for FAWM. Ten days in, I now have eight songs uploaded, including my first collaboration of the year. The new studio chair means that I can sit in there for much longer without getting uncomfortable and just lose myself in the process of creating new music. It is quite extraordinary how I can lose track of time when I start working on a new piece since the studio refit. A couple of hours can go by in what seems like ten minutes. Yes, we're back to the concept of flow once again.

UPDATED AGAIN

I really must make a note of how to get Netbeans to display properly on my 4K monitors whenever I update it, because the default installation makes no attempt to size the UI according to monitor resolution and each update opens with microscopically small fonts on the screen. And it has just done exactly that.

The blog's as good a place as any, so here we go: this time I remembered to install the Darcula plugin to get the colour scheme looking how I want it, but this install failed to apply the selected text size along with the look and feel when I clicked on the "Apply" button, which is a bit of a fail as far as the UX goes. Instead, I had to edit the netbeans.conf file in /NetBeans/netbeans/etc and add the parameter --fontsize 24 to the end of the netbeans_default_options line before the IDE sized fonts correctly (and the ludicrous length of that line suggests to me that the way Netbeans uses its config file is really in dire need of a rewrite...)

The next time I update Netbeans (which should happen every quarter, according to their website) I must also remember to uninstall the existing version, because the installer just assumes that you're going to want to keep it and doesn't ask if you want it uninstalled. But after five minutes of sighing heavily at the screen, I'm now up and running with version 12.2. Sadly, the annoyingly obtuse modifications to code completion are still in place (once it starts, it's very hard to get it to stop) and the IDE is as wonky and lo-fi as ever. But it's free, so I can't really complain. I've written this blog with it for years and I'm not really inclined to spend time (or money) looking for a more attractive alternative at the moment.

UNDER THE WEATHER

I've been having a rough old time of things this month. At the moment my insides are causing me considerable discomfort and as getting to sleep has become a real struggle lately, I'm becoming increasingly reluctant to give it up and face the new day. Getting out of bed hurts. Cold weather exacerbates my aches and pains, and this month they seem to be multiplying. It was -2°C here last night and this morning I really struggled to muster enough energy to get out of bed. Having a lie-in wasn't an option because I knew that I had to leave the house today, something that has begun to feel more and more like an ordeal. I needed to head out to the doctor's to collect my latest prescription, and when I parked the car and walked across to the surgery it felt like the wind was blowing right through me. I've been back home for hours and I still don't feel like I've warmed up again. I'm currently sitting here shivering, and I've had the heating on for the last quarter of an hour. This is what getting old is like, kids.

There were tiny drifts of snow in the gutters up the hill in Wotton, although aside from a few flakes on the (frozen) birdbath there was no sign of any here. This was a relief, as the Accuweather app on my phone has been pinging with yellow alerts of snow and ice since the middle of last week. Now that I'm stocked up, I don't have to worry about snow for another ten days or so. Elsewhere, winter most definitely has the country in its grip and now I'm feeling left out; if I don't have to venture out, it's nice to get a decent snowfall. Apart from anything else, it makes me feel much less guilty about deciding to just stay under the duvet and saying to hell with getting up altogether. Today, I'd collected my prescription, gone shopping, and returned home before noon. I think I've done all the adulting I can stand this week and I may well take that lie-in tomorrow.

On my way to the supermarket there was a sign on the B4060 at North Nibley advising motorists that the road will be shut once again from the 16th of February. This time the closure is for eight weeks as a deteriorating old metal gas main is replaced with bright yellow plastic pipes (which are already sitting, ready and waiting, in a field to the West of the village.) The closure is a bit of a bugger, particularly as the road has only been open again since the second half of December. It was closed last year so that a collapsing bridge could be reinforced. The diversion to get across to the shops involves either driving down very narrow lanes and hoping that you don't meet anything coming the other way, or setting off in the opposite direction and using the A38 instead, which adds six miles to the distance there and back. I have gone from covering the best part of a thousand miles a week in my last job to getting grumpy about travelling twenty-three miles to Sainsbury's and back once every ten days or so. According to Google Maps, the Tesco in Thornbury is closer than the diversion to Dursley, so I'll probably end up doing my shopping there for a couple of months. At this rate, I may have to fill the car up with petrol for the first time this year...

SO MUCH FUN

Despite my physical state, I have been having a whale of a time so far this month writing songs for February Album Writing Month. As of last night I have six songs uploaded on my FAWM profile page, so I'm well ahead of schedule for making the target of fourteen songs by the end of the month.

And now that it's February, I can finally answer the question posed in the opening credits of my Sunday night live stream on Twitch by saying, "Yes!"

Despite actually yawning while I was on air last night (did I mention that I'm having sleep issues again?) I enjoyed myself, and I think that I'm beginning to get used to the new camera angles that I set up last week. I need to put together a new opening credits sequence, though. I decided today that I'm just going to have one open for all the shows I do. Something about making my brand stronger, I suspect. I don't know if I'll have it ready by Thursday, but I'll have a go...

FIVE DAYS IN, FOUR SONGS DOWN

Last night's livestream on Twitch featured quite a lot of new music from yours truly, as I have embraced the opportunity to work on my first February Album Writing Month with the back bedroom now fully converted into a recording studio. The setup has been an inspiration, and I've been having rather a lot of fun with FAWM so far this year. I was also inspired to record a song in the style of one of FAWM's stalwarts, the one and only Silver Machine, and the result is the third track that I played on last night's show.

Today I finished off track number four (apart from tweaking a couple of the chords that I mentioned during the show and adding vocals, I've left it pretty much as it was yesterday.)

I'll be back in the studio later this evening, but for the moment I'm taking a well-earned breather.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

It's February the first today, which means that once again February Album Writing Month has begun and as I have done for more than a decade now, I will be spending the next twenty-eight days in my home studio attempting to write at least fourteen new songs. As I have done in previous years, I'll be reporting on my progress here on the blog and I'll be sharing any insights or new discoveries that I make along the way. February has become the most creatively rewarding month of the year for me, and it also makes the long, cold winter nights more bearable than they would otherwise be. FAWM is what gets me through the winter with my sanity more or less intact.

I had originally planned to start off my FAWM activities this year by running an impromptu live stream on Twitch from the studio (as opposed to my regular shows, like the one I did last night; see the blog entry below) but when I got up this morning and fired up the PC I discovered that my Internet connection is struggling and my upload and download speeds have reverted to the sort of numbers I used to get when I only got access to the Internet via ADSL. Everything is pathetically slow today. I'm writing this blog entry as the video of last night's show renders out and I may well have made an erroneous assumption that I'm going to be able to upload it to YouTube when it's ready. I may even struggle to upload the blog files, judging by how things are looking at the moment. Whatever is going on, it's affecting of all the service providers in the area so whatever has broken was something quite important and I hope that they manage to fix it quickly.

But that's not going to stop me heading upstairs and starting work on new music after not doing so for oh, nearly three whole days. Now that I finally have the recording setup that I've dreamed about for the last two decades, I'm making as much use of it as I can. And apart from anything else, all that musical gear keeps the room nice and toasty, which is a significant attraction when it's just 3°C outside, as it is today. At least it's not snowing; it did so for a while yesterday afternoon, although it wasn't cold enough to settle and the snow eventually turned into rain.

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, EH?

I first took part in FAWM back in 2009, although I didn't do particularly well the first time around. Work commitments meant that I spent large chunks of the month travelling all over the country. Each time I got home from my travels, my creative batteries had little to no charge left in them at all, and it was the experience of losing most of my free time that month that made me realise that my (non-union) employer considered its staff to be simple vassals who could be called upon at all times to simply abandon whatever plans they had arranged for those hours they weren't at work without apology or compensation. (Overtime? You're joking...) As that blog from 2009 also revealed, I was beginning to realise that I really wasn't very well at all. At the beginning of the following month I was finally diagnosed with chronic depression and started taking antidepressants, so the mindset that I had during my first FAWM really wasn't conducive to inspiration or sudden flowerings of creativity. I don't miss that job at all; the way that management treated me and my colleagues had, I suspect, a lot to do with why I'd become ill in the first place. I'm surprised by how bitter I clearly still am about those days; I didn't know that until I started writing this paragraph.

The following year I was working closer to home, and was able to do slightly better at FAWM, but it wasn't until 2012 that I really started to understand some of the basics of what I was doing and kick my muse into a higher gear. And every year since then, I've managed to get a little bit better at writing songs, playing the instruments in my collection, and getting decent-sounding recordings of my performances. That journey has been incredibly engaging as well as fantastic fun and it has gradually changed from an amusing diversion into a favourite pastime, and from there into a full-blown obsession. And I'm not kidding about the obsession part; it requires a considerable degree of commitment to transform a room in your house into something that looks like this:

Happy Place

For anyone who has decided to take part in February Album Writing Month for the first time this year, my stream on Twitch last night was dedicated to explaining the basics. There was a slide show and everything. I think I covered the stuff that you need to know quite well, because it's based on my experience of taking part every year since 2009. I even picked up some new followers during the show (which was nice.) I've uploaded the edited highlights to YouTube...

If you watch the stream (assuming that I eventually manage to upload it today), I hope that it will encourage you to think about signing up for the challenge. You don't have to be a musician to take part; plenty of FAWMers just write lyrics and all that you need to be a lyricist is an idea for a song, a pen, and a piece of paper. Why not have a go? As I said many times during last night's stream, taking part in FAWM means joining a wonderful community of highly motivated and enthusiastic songwriters who really like helping other people to write songs too. Every year that I've taken part I've had a wonderful experience and I can't wait to get started again this year.

So that's the blog written. Let the FAWMing begin!