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Last update: November 2017

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From July 4th to October 1st I've released a new piece of music every Saturday. Click the cover to visit Bandcamp and listen to the final release from the Saturday Single Challenge!

Full Of Beans

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POINT OF VIEW

I can't remember ever being such a mess of creaking joints and aching limbs as I have become over the last year or so. Even after a couple of weeks of hard skiing, I never used to feel this bad. Sure, I'm not as young as I used to be, but I'm not that old, am I? I'm not even sixty yet! My sleep is disrupted nightly, partially because of what I suspect is anxiety-induced tension, but also because each time I roll over, I'm woken up by a brief but vivid stab of pain. It gets particularly bad when the temperature drops (it was -3°C outside last night for the second time this week, and the temperature didn't get above freezing here until 10 am.) As I'm working from home today, I was able to compensate a little by setting the alarm for a civilised time. I wasn't worrying about driving in to work, either. All of that, combined with a toasty hot water bottle to keep me warm, meant that I managed to get a decent night's sleep last night. It's amazing how much better I feel today as a result.

But it occurred to me last night that the problems I'm having - which are mainly centred on my neck and shoulders - started to become worse after I bought new monitors for my main computer system at home just over a year ago. The picture on the monitors is great, but the stands offer no options for adjustment at all and, as they don't have VESA mounting threads on the back (a gross oversight on Samsung's part) I can't replace them with aftermarket, adjustable ones. But today I remembered: while the monitor stands might not be adjustable, my twenty-year-old IKEA desk is, so I have lowered the keyboard and monitor shelves on it by five centimetres or so. The top edge of each monitor is now level with my eyes. My immediate response when I sat back down at the computer afterwards is that I feel more comfortable looking at the displays, and there doesn't seem to be as much tension in my neck. I'm hoping that this isn't just my imagination; I guess that time will tell, so I'll let you know...

NO DEADLINE

After releasing an album back in May last year, I took a month or so off and then started writing songs for the follow-up. I'm still working on them. Even though some of the material I've written originally appeared during FAWM or Fifty/Ninety, my subsequent work on it hasn't been bound by the constraints that are essential at those events, which are intended to make sure that we "get it done" and move on. Instead, I've been taking the time to get things right. With nearly twenty songs written so far about one aspect or another of the album's basic theme, I've got well over a CD's worth of material, but I have ideas for another half-dozen songs that I also want to get down, if only to hear what they sound like. And I have been letting songs steep, listening to them and mulling things over, and going back to them and redoing things if I think of a better way to approach the music. Finally, I will have to cull the weakest songs from the collection. That means I should end up with the "best" material for the release, which is definitely a good thing, but it also means that creative progress has been very slow. Several songs have been rewritten more than once, and every time I listen to the latest versions, I hear new things that I ought to fix. I'm never satisfied with my guitar playing, for one thing. And I hate my vocals, for another. I'll go back and make them better, for sure - but for me, the process shed a lot of light on stories of bands taking a decade or even longer to complete their work.

I'm hoping to push things forwards over the Christmas break and with any luck, the album will be ready for release early in the New Year. But if it isn't, it isn't; I won't stress about it.

BACK FROM THE EAST, BACK FROM THE PAST

It was my father's 85th birthday on Friday, so I've been over to East Anglia to pay him a visit.

He looked much better than he did the last time I visited and he wasn't drinking, which is probably why. The damage that he's done to himself through years of alcohol abuse is very evident, though. His cognitive functions have markedly declined. He no longer drives (which is a profound relief to me, but something that he is most definitely not happy about it at all.) He struggles to remember how to operate devices that he used to have no problems with. The laptop computer we bought him for his 80th birthday had not been touched since my last visit and its battery was completely flat. This weekend he was complaining that his telephone isn't working properly, although it appears to be functioning perfectly. I have little doubt that by the time I go back, he will have replaced it with a new one; he is in complete denial that there is anything wrong with his mental faculties. In the summer he forgot to close the door on the freezer and everything in it defrosted, and had to be thrown away. As it was, clearly, impossible for this to be his fault, the freezer must therefore have been broken, so he had it taken away and now has a brand new one. He has a drawer full of electric shavers that all mysteriously stopped working after about six weeks. His response, each time, is to just buy another one. A couple of months ago he forgot how to use the two remote controls which operate the FreeSat TV box with his TV. His reaction to this, as he told me angrily over the phone, was that "some people" had come in and broken his television. Even though the local TV shop told him there was nothing wrong with his old set, he insisted on buying a new one. That meant we had to arrange for a new aerial to be fitted on the roof, because at some point in the last year or so he appears to have told someone to take the old one down, even though it worked fine.

But with a new set and a new aerial on the roof he can now operate the TV easily. He is delighted that it comes on immediately (because he no longer bothers with the signal from the Freesat box, he no longer has to wait for it to boot up.) He can cope with how to operate the TV, because he only needs one remote control. He's also delighted with the picture quality and told me several times how good it is, even though he doesn't tune the set in to any of the HD channels.

I know he's my dad, but visiting is hard work and each visit gets harder. He's a mansplainer par excellence. At one point on Saturday he was telling me how the TV remote control worked. He reads mundane items out of the newspaper or the multitude of mail-order catalogues he has lying around as if he was a lecturer imparting his own vast tracts of knowledge. His enthusiasm about his new television set is framed in the context of "I bet your TV isn't as good as this, is it?" He views his carers, who are kind and considerate, who clean up for him and who prepare meals for him that he doesn't eat, as an inconvenience when he's in one of his rare good moods and an annoyance when he's not. I was woken up on Saturday morning by him bellowing in rage at next door's cat, which had had the temerity to enter the garden. I've heard him shout at his grandchildren in exactly the same manner on many occasions.

And every conversation, without exception, is steered relentlessly and inexorably to being about him. Every gap in the conversation has to be filled, and he's the person who is going to do it. He can't sustain interest in any subject other than himself for more than ten seconds. If the subject of conversation continues to be about something other than him, he will just switch off. Literally; his lack of willingness to engage meaningfully with other people means that he doesn't even turn on his hearing aids. Everything you say to him has to be repeated twice, because he doesn't pay attention the first time and, I realise, he's done this for decades - long before he began to have serious hearing issues. He just doesn't listen to other people. Why should he? Nothing that anyone else says could possibly be as important as what he has to say. He's just waiting for you to stop making noise so that he can resume talking. It's an insidious way of demonstrating how little he values what you're telling him. It would not occur to him to think about others. Rather than using his hearing aids, it's easier to set the television to a volume where he can listen to it comfortably even though it means it's painfully loud for anyone else.

Sorry for venting, but I needed to write something about this today. The older I get, the more I realise how damaged I was by experiencing that behaviour on a daily basis as a child. I though it was normal, because that's all I knew. I did not have a pleasant childhood and each time I visit him, painful childhood memories keep flooding back. I use the word "painful" deliberately, too; any complex parenting issues that cropped up when I was a child were resolved by the threat, or actual delivery, of "a good hiding." When I got back in the small hours of this morning, I was exhausted. I went to bed, and slept for ten hours. I haven't done that for a while. In fact, I suspect the last time it happened was the night after I got home from my last visit. But I'll keep going to see him as long as he's around, because he's my dad.

WHERE DO THE TWEETS GO?

I got a tweet this morning congratulating me on my Twitterversary, if that's a word; I signed up for Twitter ten years ago today. Since then I've tweeted at a rate of just under three tweets a day; when it comes to tweeting, I'm not what you could call voluble.

These days, I have a lot of issues with Twitter. And Twitter themselves don't seem to be particularly invested in doing anything about a lot of the problems that exist with their service, such as the massive number of fake accounts that are run by computer programs called bots. Why are bots a problem? For one thing, it appears that they are being used to manipulate political processes around the world.

But aside from the fact that it's allegedly being used to subvert democracy, why should Twitter fix their bot problem? For one thing, all those bot accounts grotesquely inflate Twitter's usage stats, making it look like a much more attractive place to sell advertising than it actually is. Twitter have a financial disincentive to do anything about the problem, no matter how awful the consequences for the rest of the world because hey, capitalism.

Some of Twitter's users have other ideas, though - such as @probabot_, which sends out a stream of tweets identifying other Twitter accounts that are likely to be politically-motivated bot accounts. If only Twitter had a similar capability.

Oh, wait...

HERE WE GO

On Sunday night the temperature overnight dropped to -1°C again. Today's cold front brought rain, but behind it the daytime temperature dropped back down to single figures and it's forecast to stay that way for most of the rest of the week. It had to be done; I've just set the timer so that the central heating comes on automatically.

It is therefore now officially winter.

WINTERISED

I've spent very little time this year doing the gardening. I haven't had time. Usually during the summer I cut back the magnolia in the front garden, because when I don't, it grows so tall that it blocks most of the light coming in through the window. This year the weather has been particularly kind to it and it had doubled in height. Now it's November, and with the leaves still on the branches, it gets very gloomy in here, even at noon. It's also way past time for me to cut back the amaryllis on the windowsill and put them away for the winter.

Before...

So this morning it was time to get out the serious gardening gear and do something. Two and a half hours later, after filling two green bins, light can get through the window again. Since I took this picture the Sun has come out and I'm shocked by how much lighter it is in here. I guess I got used to the gloom:

...and after

The next task on my gardening list will be to cut back the buddleia in the back garden, but I've nowhere left to put the branches. And anyway, right now I need a cup of tea...

BRICKED

I was somewhat peeved to discover yesterday that my VU+ Duo satellite receiver no longer boots up. It won't even respond when I switch it on with a USB stick with a flash updater plugged into the front. It just sits there with its red LED shining, mocking me. It's only three years old or so.

At the risk of sounding like an old git, I remember the days when consumer electronics were built to last; my parents' first colour television lasted them 27 years.

MISTY MORNING

The swallows and house martins are long gone. There was no frost last night, but when I put the recycling box and bags out, there was a definite nip in the air. The leaves are falling and at work, the raucous song of the petrol-driven leaf blower serenades us all every morning from 7:30 until lunchtime. This week there have been signs that autumn is moving towards winter: it looks like the garden spiders succumbed to Monday's frost. The araneus diadematus that spent all summer spinning webs outside my kitchen window has disappeared, and so have the spiders on the conservatory. Just down the road at Slimbridge, the WWT has been reporting the arrival of winter migrants, and there are some in my neighbourhood, too: as I got the car out of the garage yesterday morning, I could hear the mournful, piping call of a redwing coming from next door's tree. Larger animals are more active, stocking up for winter; twice in the past week I've seen a fox running across the Wickwar Road as I drove to work. While the wildlife in the immediate vicinity is wary enough of traffic, I've noticed a spike in roadkill - the corpses of squirrels, foxes, badgers and deer regularly line the roads between home and the office. The days are now obviously shorter than the nights and the average daytime temperature is growing noticeably cooler. This morning it was foggy when I got up, and the Sun didn't burn the last of it off until ten o'clock or so.

I think it's safe to say that the new windows are having a noticeable effect on the temperature in the house. I've blipped the heat on for an hour once or twice so far, but the timer's default setting is still set to off. Will I break my record for late switch-on, which was the 20th of November, back in 2015? I suspect not, because back then the overnight temperatures in the first half of November were still regularly hitting double figures. That's certainly not been the case this week.

I won't be pushing things to make a point, though. The damp weather has brought on a selection of aches and pains that have been making sleep difficult. When even my hot water bottle stops helping, it'll be time to fire up the boiler. But it's at times like this that I remember the feeling of comfort I got getting off the plane in Tampa at this time of year - it was like being wrapped in warm towels and I could feel my body relax as the warmth hit me. I no longer raise an eyebrow at the American phenomenon of snowbirds: pensioners who move south for the winter. These days it sounds like a brilliant idea.

OLD FRIENDS

Michael Bond, who passed away earlier this year, was best known for writing the Paddington books. But he also wrote a number of other stories that became television shows, and my favourite of these was The Herbs, which was made by Ivor Wood (who, together with Serge Danot, also made The Magic Roundabout.)

Animator Tom Sanders, who runs the Ivor Wood blog, has just revealed a lovely discovery by people clearing up Michael Bond's offices: a set of cardboard boxes containing rare treasure. Carefully preserved, wrapped in tissue paper, were the puppets used to make the show, and they look great.

UPGRADE INCOMING

Big news today from Ableton, who announced that Live Version 10 will be released early next year.

I wrote yesterday about the dramatic improvements I've heard in my musical abilities when I acquire another instrument, but I hear just as big an improvement when I change the technology I use to record what I play. Each move I've made, switching from 4-track cassette to a digital recorder and then to a DAW (first with nTrack, and then Live) resulted in a massive improvement in recording quality and that in turn has inspired me to create better music. I've been using Live since Version 8, and I continue to be amazed that software that costs less than a decent electric guitar can give me the capabilities of a professional recording studio when I run it on my computer. I'm still discovering new things that it will let me do, and the more I use it, the more powerful I realise it is. Not surprisingly I have therefore already pre-ordered the upgrade to Live 10 Suite; the new release has all sorts of features that I'm really looking forwards to using, particularly note chasing, which will trigger current MIDI notes even if you start playback after the note-on point in the track has passed (previous versions don't do this, and it's been one of the few niggles I have with Live.) Ableton also say that Live 10 will have Max for Live "seamlessly built in", which I hope means that its load time has been reduced. That will encourage me to use it more often.

The new version of Live also has a new synthesiser module and new effects plug-ins, too, so I expect to get inspired by the ability to create brand-new sounds. I'm hoping that Live 10 will be available ready for FAWM in February, so I can spend the month investigating new sonic possibilities. In the meantime, I notice I'm a couple of point releases behind the current version, so I'll be downloading the latest update tonight and installing it on the studio PC and the laptop...

A FIFTY/NINETY AND FAWM RETROSPECTIVE

Last month I said that I was going to spend a few days thinking about what I've learned from taking part in Fifty/Ninety this year before I wrote things up on the blog. "A few days" turned out to be the rest of the month, but I did do the thinking that I said I would, and now it's time to summarise my findings. Before I do that, though, I want to set out my more general impression of this year's events.

Both FAWM and Fifty/Ninety were much more low-key this year than they have been in previous years - at least in my experience. Apart from a few stalwarts who hung around until October, Fifty/Ninety in particular was extremely quiet. I had a sense that this year, people were going back to the basics - a great number of songs were voice only, or voice with guitar, or voice with ukulele. Even the exquisite corpse collaborations followed this trend, which left me feeling disappointed and pining for the extravaganzas of previous years; you can't really do a "fancy production" number with a stripped-down, acoustic set of instruments! It felt like something vital was missing this year, somehow. The general level of enthusiasm seemed to drop off rapidly. By the end of August the flow of comments had more or less dried up, and that doesn't help the motivation levels. I'd also managed to run myself into the ground with work by the time the bank holiday weekend came around, which didn't help matters.

I recovered in September and managed to hit the target of fifty songs for the fifth year running, and added a few more for good measure. In terms of quantity, then, this year was a success: there were more than five thousand songs on the site by the time we all crossed the finish line on October 1st. In terms of quality, things were less clear. There were gems to discover amongst all of the songs uploaded to the site, but there was a fair amount of stuff this year that, quite frankly, was painful to listen to. Quite a lot of the stuff in that category was mine - my creative spark has burned with variable intensity this year, and tmy muse was capricious. Not to put too fine a point on it, some of my efforts this year are probably best consigned to the "archives" folder, if not the recycle bin.

Nevertheless, I've come up with five things that I'd like to share about my process that I discovered as a result of reflecting on what I was doing and the results I've got. And as usual, the list is in no particular order, so let's get started...

1. Mixing softer sounds louder

In the past year I've been listening to a lot of home recording podcasts and one thing that I've heard over and over again is that it's important to get the volume levels of your component tracks right when you mix. Do a mix that's based solely on volume before you add anything like equalisation or compression and you'll get better results, they said. So I gave it a try, and what do you know? They were right.

Tracks that I mixed a couple of dB quieter had a more powerful-sounding bottom end and the instruments sat more solidly in the mix. The bass really stood out, and there was better separation between instruments.

2. I need to work on my vocals

To speed up my workflow I did a lot of my singing sitting down this year. I have a Shure Super 55 set up right next to my DAW and as I like the warmth of the recordings I get with it, I tended to use it in preference to the Røde NT1A I have set up on a proper stand. But listening back to what I've recorded over the summer I can hear a noticeable difference in the strength of my voice, and I don't like what I'm hearing. Although my pitch control has improved to the point that I barely used Melodyne this year at all, it doesn't sound like I'm making enough effort.

Apart from anything else, I don't want to sound like an old guy, and at the moment I think I do. So I'll be switching back to my old vocal recording technique and standing up to do things properly.

3. Don't take your foot off the gas

With being run-down and tired, I tended to leave musical activities to the weekends, and that really didn't work out. The few songs that I was happy with this year were written after I'd spent a day or two recording stuff that wasn't working. It was as if I had to get warmed up before I remembered how to do this properly, and if I started on Friday I was only getting back into my stride on Sunday evenings.

One solution may be that I switch to a different way of working that has worked for me in the past, which brings us to...

4. I write better songs when I write the lyrics first

I really should pay attention to my own words: I'd already learnt this the second time I took part in FAWM way back in 2010, but I had forgotten it. This year, the strongest songs I wrote by far were the ones where I started with lyrics rather than starting with a melody and then finding words that would fit.

In the light of item 3 above, even if I'm tired during the week I should still be capable of writing lyrics, even if I don't get round to performing them until the weekend.

5. Few things boost your playing better than a new instrument

Since I started doing these challenges, I've noticed that the biggest leaps in my musical abilities coincide with the purchase of a new instrument. Getting the Korg M3 back in February 2011 really opened up sonic possibilities for me that previously I had no access to, but just as importantly the massive increase in the amount of time that I spent just playing keyboards meant that my competence improved tremendously. That was even more evident when I bought a new electric guitar for the first time in 20 years back in 2014, because I was able to spend most of the summer obsessively playing the thing. My quality of my guitar chops went through the roof - and the fact that I had a new amplifier to give new shape to my guitar sound didn't do any harm, either. I liked the results of buying a new guitar so much that the following month I did it again and four months after that, I bought another one.

This year, the Godin xtSA and Roland GR-55 have let me do things that I couldn't do before, and as the Godin is strung with 10s rather than my usual 9s, my fingers have had to become stronger in order to play it properly. The accuracy of my picking has had to improve in order for me to get the synth to trigger cleanly. I can hear the difference in my playing, even after a mere four months.

As I bought a G&L S-500 last month, I suspect that increased amounts of guitar playing will continue to take place for the rest of the year, particularly as it is rapidly becoming my favourite guitar. I hope you'll be able to hear the results by the time FAWM gets under way on February 1st next year.

IN THE DARK

There was only the merest hint of dawn in the sky when I left the house this morning. The stars were out when I got home tonight. Winter has returned, as have the car drivers who drive everywhere with their headlights on full beam, regardless of whether or not there's traffic coming the other way. Argh!