Chris Harris's Blog
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Current: March 2014
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|7 March 14 (permalink)|
IN THE AIR
This morning there was no frost for the first time in a couple of days. Now it's Friday afternoon, the Sun is shining, and the outside temperature has reached a mind-boggling 14°C (or 57°F in old money). It's not been this warm or this sunny for months. However, as I drove down the hill into the village just now I had a look at the fields, and I won't be going out for a walk just yet; they're still very heavily waterlogged. Still, the forecast is for a spell of warm, much more settled weather for the next few days so maybe spring isn't too far away after all. I hope so - I'm a mass of aches and pains at the moment and although I feel a bit better after a restorative coffee and a Belgian bun, I could really do with some nice warm sunshine.
FROM THE FUTURE...
As I type up the blog, the strapline on this story about caffeine in the Guardian has tomorrow's date on it. Never mind; it's an interesting article about my favourite addictive substance. And boy, it really is addictive. From some of the comments made it's a wonder any of us is allowed to consume the stuff. Except that, if we weren't, civilisation would probably collapse overnight.
If you like your metal (and who doesn't?) I strongly recommend watching Sam Dunn's TV series Metal Evolution. I've been watching it in the evenings on Blu Ray this week after seeing it in HD on a German television channel, recognising Sam as the guy behind Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and deciding on the spot that I needed to track down a copy of the show, which was made in 2011.
Anthropologist and metalhead Dunn has interviewed a staggering selection of musicians for the series, including Lemmy (Motörhead), Geddy Lee (Rush), Roger Glover, Ian Paice and the late, great Jon Lord (Deep Purple), Scott Ian (Anthrax), Dave Lombardo (Slayer), John Kay (Steppenwolf), Geezer Butler and Bill Ward (Black Sabbath), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Peter Criss and Ace Frehley (Kiss), Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Mike Anthony (Van Halen), Dick Dale, Slash, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Uli Jon Roth, Yngwie Malmsteen and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top). Oh, and he also meets Ted Nugent, who easily cruises into first place as the least likeable person on the show. Nugent really does make an effort to come across as profoundly unpleasant, and in a field where egos frequently run rampant, that's quite an achievement.
Even if you're not a metalhead, you'll likely find the series interesting just from the personalities involved. It's fascinating watching the musicians as Sam greets them and shakes their hands - most of them don't even bother to make eye contact with him. Some just look bored, others pathetically tired and run down. So far it's Aerosmith's Tom Hamilton who comes over as the most likeable, down-to-earth guy in the show. He's clearly paying attention, and really interested in what Sam is trying to do. Meanwhile, Bruce Dickinson effortlessly strolls off with the award for being the sharpest card in the deck; I haven't seen anyone else so far with his vocabulary or intellectual firepower. Great stuff.
|3 March 14 (permalink)|
I've been feeling rough for the last week or so but over the last couple of days it's really been difficult to summon up enough energy to do anything. I didn't even write a Sunday blog entry, that's how bad it was. I made it in to work, but this evening I'm going to have supper, soak in the bath with a book for a while, then head off to bed. My brain is fried.
Part of this is, I'm sure, the fact that the pressure to come up with more songs is off (at least until July). I'm still listening to and commenting on other people's stuff, but the site isn't accepting further submissions now that it's March. I unwound on Saturday night listening to Juha and TC's FAWMtalk post-FAWM spectacular on YouTube and chatting on irc with a whole bunch of other FAWMers, which was huge fun. In the process I somehow drank an entire bottle of red wine. The subsequent hangover on Sunday morning really hasn't helped matters along. I've really noticed the comedown this year now that the adrenaline has eased off and even a quick burst of cowbell is only a temporary means of stirring myself from this lethargy.
So I've decided not to come down. It's as simple as that. While I've eased off February's frantic pace, I am not going to stop making music. The interesting thing is that creativity is like a muscle: it gets better when you exercise it and this year, doing so has got to be a habit. I am still coming up with ideas, so I will carry on writing stuff down and - when I feel a bit better - recording it. And if it's good, it might well end up on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Okay, I'm not going to get the instant feedback that FAWM affords me, but you'll still listen, right?
|1 March 14 (permalink)|
Yesterday was the last day of meteorological winter. Today it's spring, and outside I can see frost on the roofs after one of the coldest nights this year (the temperature outside dropped below -2°C). The wind has dropped, it's not raining and even better, the Sun is shining. The buds on the magnolia outside the window are beginning to grow, and I really hope that the weather has changed for the better. It's been the wettest winter since records began in the UK, and the South West has been badly hit. We could do with some time in the sunshine right now.
Yesterday was also the last day of February, and the last day of FAWM. I'm more than a little bit sad that it's all over for another year.
FEBRUARY ALBUM WRITING MONTH REVIEW, 2014
This year, FAWMers produced a spectacular grand total of 9901 new pieces of music. I had a hand in seventeen of them. So, twenty eight days after the madness started, what did I discover? Every year I pick the top five new things that I have found out about the way I create music, and summarise them in the blog. This year is not going to be any different. Make no mistake, the five things that I talked about in 2013 are still hugely important (particularly the use of EQ and limiters), but I want to talk about new discoveries from this year, so here we go...
In past years, I was a teensy bit precious about stuff I'd laid down. That's not to say I was a completely "this is an authentic record of my performance and not a single note will be changed" kind of guy, but this year I told myself, "Don't be afraid to edit stuff." And I'm glad I listened to what I was saying. I made a lot of sense. :-)
Editing is ridiculously easy to do in Ableton Live; I can transpose, move or cut sections or individual notes and I've been doing so on a small scale since I first started using the software. But this year I was hacking things about on a much larger scale (I was able to do this easily because of item 2 below, but we'll come on to that in a moment). This year I have been making a conscious effort to listen to what I was doing from a basic construction viewpoint; does the song's structure work? Does everything hang together? Are the gaps between the verses sufficient? Does the song "breathe" okay?
Last year I did a lot of one-take recordings. As I sang and played, the Korg would play drums, bass, and whatever other KARMA accompaniments I'd programmed in and I recorded everything in one go. With the surge in adrenaline that this technique produces, it's not always easy to listen to what you're doing and stay detached enough to recognise that you need another four bars before you throw in the bridge. This year, though, I only came up with the final shape of songs long after I'd recorded the individual tracks that I'd played. In some cases I switched choruses and verses round, or dropped entire sections because I didn't need them. By paying attention to the overall feel of the song, I was able to come up with much stronger compositions, at least as far as I'm concerned, anyway.
Editing this year has also meant delving into the minutiae of a track. For In Shadows, the Bond Theme that I did with Mel, I ended up adjusting individual MIDI note velocities on some tracks so that I could bring out the right melody line in the orchestral accompaniment. And it was immensely satisfying to hear how much of a difference it made to the overall result. A definite win.
2. TOONTRACK'S EZDRUMMER IS THE BUSINESS
This year I started off a lot of tracks by playing along to a basic rhythm track at the right tempo and with the beat I wanted, created using the EZDrummer VST plugin. With a solid drum track in place, I could improvise different sections for each track I recorded and know that when I dropped them back into Ableton, they would always fall on the beat. That let me chop things up and play with structures far more easily than I've been able to do before, and I could mess about with different versions of verses and choruses to see what worked best. When Mel made significant changes to the structure of In Shadows it was a piece of cake to just slide the original sections to their new locations and (as the saying goes) not miss a beat.
Once I had the shape of each song set out the way I wanted it, I could then go back to the drum track and drop in individual fills and variations on to the basic patterns. This makes the drums appear to respond to what the other tracks are doing. It gives the songs a far more coherent feel than I was ever going to get with a basic drum loop. But as everything on the drum track is controlled by MIDI I could also tweak how loudly each drum is hit, so I could emphasise or tone down the cymbals, for instance. The results can sound remarkably sophisticated; listen to Hands Free for an example of something I put together with me freaking out on the Theremin and improvising on the Korg M3 played through a loop pedal, set against a regular 5/8 jazz beat played on the "Drumkit From Hell" EZDrummer expansion pack. The drums are then fed into a second audio channel which has Ableton's "Drum Room" reverb applied to it, and there are a few embellishments courtesy of the Ableton Push. Mmmm, jazz. Nice.
When I listen to the tracks I've recorded with this method - such as Binary World, In Shadows, Lucky Old Me or Mild Concussion, it sounds to me far more like I was playing in a band with a real drummer than I have managed in the past. And that is *exactly* what I am looking for in a drum application.
3. CHECK YOUR STUFF BEFORE YOU UPLOAD IT
As a corollary to item 1, I still hear a lot of stuff done for FAWM where the artist doesn't even make a rudimentary attempt at editing. Okay, it's not everybody's cup of tea. But, rightly or wrongly, doing something as simple as taking the time to remove the clunking noises at the beginning and end of a take when you're operating the recorder can make a huge difference to people's reactions to a song. There's no real excuse for not doing this, after all: if you've got the technology to produce an mp3 file and upload it to the Internet, you can download audio software (such as Audacity, which is completely free to use) that will let you trim off the three minutes of silence at the end of your ukulele masterpiece. Some folks whose music I really like have been leaving little bursts of a previous song that has been stuck in their DAW template for weeks in everything they've uploaded. And if you're recording several tracks and combining them, even if you aren't using a mixer, please normalise things (i.e. make each track roughly the same level) before you combine them, okay?
I always, ALWAYS listen to the final rendered file of each song, and even though I create it using Ableton, I load it into Audacity and play it through before exporting it as an mp3 file. On several occasions this step has brought to light inconsistences in the mix or even (gasp) mistakes that I couldn't justify keeping, so back I went to Ableton to do some more work. Even then, before I uploaded the song to FAWM I took the file downstairs and listened to it on my other PC, which has a pretty average set of Dell speakers on it rather than the Rokit RP5's I use upstairs. The Rokits are proper monitors, the Dell speakers are pretty basic (although the subwoofer helps). I made sure I was happy with how a song sounded on both sets of speakers before it made it out into the real world.
There are still a couple of tracks where I need to tweak the levels a bit, and I might do that this weekend at some point, but on the whole those extra run-throughs have helped to improve the quality of my songs this year by a quite noticeable amount.
4. HEADPHONES FOR DETAIL; MONITORS FOR EVERYTHING ELSE
In the first few years of FAWM I worked almost entirely with headphones. Not just for recording, but for mixing and checking as well. And I hear stuff from back then now, and cringe. It's not just the wonky songwriting, or the quite frankly appalling singing, it's also the production values.
Headphones are great for picking up the mistakes, the bum notes and the mouth noise in the vocals. But all that detail stopped me from picking up the overall feel of a track and when I hear those early songs, oh boy, I can tell. I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to grab a set of dedicated monitors like mine, but don't rely solely on your headphones. Get some air moving and listen to your stuff with a couple of loudspeakers. And position them so you can hear the stereo image.
Since I bought a decent set of monitors I have been delighted with how much better everything sounds when I do finally listen to it on headphones. But this year, I only ever used cans when I didn't want the mic to pick up the playback I was playing along to. The rest of the time I was using those trusty RP5s. The result? Better sound, greatly improved production values, less fatigue, and no ear infections.
Oh, and better songs, too. That's important, right?
5. COLLABS ARE SERIOUSLY ADDICTIVE. AND FUN.
A huge thank-you to everyone who was generous enough to invite me to play with their FAWM toys this year: @pallidust, @postcardhelicopters, @tesla3090, @stevenwesleyguiles, @dragondreams, @ericdistad, @marvsmooth and @skullcrush all helped me rediscover how much fun you can have making music as part of a team.
So those are my lessons learned for this year. This month I will continue to listen to what has been produced, bust zongs, leave comments and feedback, and generally enjoy being part of one of the most fun creative communities on the web. And it's only four months until 50/90 kicks off again. I can't wait!
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