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1 March 15 (permalink)

ANOTHER FEBRUARY BITES THE DUST

Wow, where did that month go?

FAWM is over, and after spending pretty much the entire day in the studio yesterday I ended up with a final count of 21 songs, my second-highest total in the seven years I've been taking part. I wrote 14 songs on my own, and recorded another 7 with other musicians on the site, including two with my friend Mel, who always manages to push me beyond what I think I'm capable of, taking me into new and rewarding explorations of music. Collaborations really are an integral part of FAWM. The results are often surprising, and never quite what you expect. Hearing your efforts being taken in new directions can be a hugely rewarding experience. Case in point: Moai, which I recorded with John Cooperider, a.k.a @ZeCoop.

When the site closed for uploads at noon today, a grand total of 10948 songs had been added. That's an outstanding achievement. If memory serves, last year we didn't quite make the five figure mark. Over the next week I will be listening to what my fellow FAWMers have been doing, leaving feedback and making as many comments as I can, because that's an essential part of February Album Writing Month. It's how we learn as part of a community; it may sound trite, but you really do get out what you put in. I find out a lot about how I can improve my own music by listening to how other people make theirs (and see point 4 below for a great example of that). I'll blog some of my favourites, too - I've enjoyed listening to some great songs over the last four weeks. Some people just make the whole songwriting thing sound like it's the easiest thing in the world.

In my experience songwriting can be very hard indeed, but I do occasionally get lucky; Dark Matter was one example of this, and my final bow for FAWM this year was another. My final count was the source of my inspiration for the last song, and once I'd decided on a card game reference for a title, I set up a crunchy rock backing in EZDrummer2 with the Metalheads kit, picked up the nine string and had a go at sounding like Lemmy on it. The results were good enough to record, so I pressed the button and went for it. Two RG-9 tracks, recorded totally dry, panned hard left and hard right, and rhythm playing on the Jackson - in a single take! - stuck in the middle. Two takes on the vocals, using a submix in Ableton to glue them together with a single set of EQ, compression and a teeny bit of reverb. I think I'd done the whole thing in about two hours.

I was amazed by how the final result sounded - it sounds like a "proper" metal track. With my new microphone ready for vocals and a voice that has come on a fair way from the feeble croak that was all I could manage a fortnight ago, the results really surprised me. One commenter said I sounded like the singer from Type O Negative, and I'll take that as a big compliment.

So, as I always do, here are the top five things I've learned this year as a result of my adventures in FAWMland:

1. Large diaphragm condenser microphone = bring on the awesome

On the first week of the Audio Production course I'm doing at Coursera, our Professor made a pretty bold statement: "You need a large diaphragm condenser microphone." I had a look online and as Amazon were selling the Røde NT1A in a bundle with cable, shockmount and pop shield for £120 (a ridiculously good deal, as it normally goes for around £145) I ordered one immediately. It takes phantom power off my Korg D3200 and the difference in sensitivity between it and the Shure SM58 I've been recording vocals on for years immediately became apparent. Normally I'd record my voice with my nose pressed against the pop shield; quite often with the SM58 I'd go even closer and have my nose touching the mic itself. If you're more than a couple of feet away from it, the SM58 loses interest. There's nothing wrong with that; it was designed that way, because it's designed to be used on stage in a loud environment. But the studio is not a loud environment, at least not all the time. With the Røde I found myself stepping back to get a quieter level, hearing a great sound, then stepping back again and hearing another great sound, and hearing nuances in what was coming through on the headphones even with minute changes in the position of my head. Actually being able to hear intense detail in my vocals has meant that I can use my voice more effectively; I'm never going to have a career as a singer but at least I don't entirely suck any more.

Oh, and the NT1A is also incredible for recording acoustic guitar. Very definitely money well spent, I'd say.

2. Submix your stuff

Another thing I learned from Coursera was to get into the habit of creating submixes. In Ableton this is also referred to as grouping tracks - it just means you collect similar tracks together and apply one set of mixing parameters to all of them rather than to each one individually. It's easier to keep track of relative volume levels and it also massively cuts down on the number of insert effects you need to use, which helps conserve processing power on your DAW.

I also think it makes the tracks seem more coherent, as though they were all recorded at the same time. Which is a most desirable thing with the sort of music I'm recording, isn't it?

3. Get a pop shield for your mic

I've been using a pop shield on the SM58 for a couple of years now. With the NT1A it's pretty much essential as the plosives in my breath from the letter "p" sound like miniature explosions otherwise. But I still hear lots of people recording their voice without one, (even in some of the podcasts I listen to, and the folks doing those really should know better) and the pops and thumps and bangs with every "p" and "b" in the lyrics can be hugely distracting. You can pick up a pop shield for around a fiver - or failing that, you can just stand a little further away from the mic. Don't beat up your listeners, let them hear the gentle strains of your voice without things exploding.

4. Metal guitars don't like reverb or delay. Keep 'em dry.

I am hugely indebted this year to Peter Watkinson, a.k.a. @Sapient, for his incredibly informative thread on the FAWM forums about how he records metal guitars for his tracks. Put simply: use bridge pickups, turn down the gain so it's not all fuzz, don't use any delay effects like echo or reverb, and doubletrack, panned hard left and right.

I gave it a go, and suddenly people were complimenting me on my guitar tone. That'll be a win, then.

5. Don't overthink it

This year has been very busy. I just didn't have time to sit down and plan a track, and I didn't have the opportunity to think about what I was going to do in advance more than once. The track where I did approach things in a methodical and theoretical manner beforehand turned out to be the weakest thing I put together all month. Conversely, what I'd consider to be my two best tracks this year were each recorded in a couple of hours. Lack of time forces me to focus on what's essential and drop any of the fancy messing about that I'd otherwise throw in. On Dark Matter I could have put a nice twiddly synthesiser piece in between each verse, but I was pushed for time so how about I just drop the track back to the drums for four bars and then move on?

Hmm, it's the dropping back to the drums that really grabs you, isn't it?

Lesson learned, I think.

And now it's March, which means it's just five months until 50/90 kicks off. I hope you'll be joining me for the fun when the madness begins again!

LEONARD NIMOY 1931 - 2015

It wasn't unexpected, as he'd announced last year that he was suffering from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but when I heard about Leonard Nimoy's death this week I felt very sad. As a small child there were very few people on the television that I was interested in, or cared about, but at the top of a very short list (the only other person on it would have been Gerry Anderson, I suspect) there was Leonard Nimoy. When I was eight, I wanted to be Mr Spock. It was as simple as that.

When I heard the news, I spent Friday evening with a glass of wine watching The Voyage Home with the director's commentary playing (It was Nimoy's second stint behind the camera on a Trek film), and it is, and always will be, one of my favourite films. The warmth of the man comes through in every aspect of the movie. Hearing him laughing as he reminisced with William Shatner about filming in San Francisco brought a lump to my throat; as the two of them talk about the passing of DeForest Kelley and ponder how they'll be remembered when they, too, exist only on film, it was difficult not to burst into tears.

The role didn't make life easy for Nimoy; his first autobiography, released in the 70s, was titled "I Am Not Spock". But after the series was cancelled, his career seemed driven by a desire to show that he was more than his most famous role. And he succeeded; he became a successful film director (directing a total of six feature films) and a talented photographer. And as the Trek audience both grew and mellowed, and the feature films garnered another generation of fans, he reconciled his relationship with his green-blooded, pointy-eared alter ego, releasing a second autobiography in the 90s which admitted "I Am Spock". It's a conversation between the two sides of his character, and it show the creative side of his nature very well. It was also a sign that Nimoy had learned to do just what Spock would wish, to live long and prosper. Indeed, "LLAP" became his signature on Tweets he sent from his Twitter account.

How much impact did Leonard Nimoy have on popular culture? Put it like this: when he met Barack Obama, Nimoy was greeted by President raising the Vulcan salute. Beyond that, anything I can say about Nimoy has already been said with more eloquence by people who are far more qualified than I am to comment on his passing. But when the President of the United States comments on your death with the words, "I loved Spock," I think we can assume you've led a good life.

Thanks for everything, Mr Nimoy.

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