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Current: March 2017

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CHUCK AND BERNIE, RIP

The trouble with getting to middle age is that a lot of the people from the previous generation who influenced you start dying. And when you get older, heroes and heroines from your own generation start passing away as well. A few years ago I made the decision to stop writing obituaries on the blog as I found myself doing it more and more often and it was getting depressing.

Even so, when I woke up this morning and found that not only had Chuck Berry died at the grand old age of 90, but also that comics legend Bernie Wrightson had passed away as well, I felt that I couldn't let their passing go unremarked.

Unless you've spent your entire life living under a rock, you know who Chuck Berry is. If you've ever been in a band, the odds are that you've performed at least one of his songs. It might not have been Johnny B. Goode, either, although that particular song is going to be around longer than most - Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan put it on the Golden Records attached to both Voyager spacecraft. It's difficult to think of another musician who wrote quite as many songs that bands use as set standards. How about You Never Can Tell, No Particular Place To Go, Roll Over Beethoven, Maybelline, Rock And Roll Music, Nadine, Sweet Little Sixteen, and Promised Land, just for starters? I can't imagine what rock and roll would sound like without his contribution. It probably wouldn't have existed. It definitely wouldn't have been so much fun.

You're not as likely to know the name Bernie Wrightson, but for comics nerds like me he's just as important a figure in the development of the genre. While his most lauded work would undoubtedly be his seven-year labour of love illustrating Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, he's probably best known as the co-creator of the character Swamp Thing. Wrightson's mastery of the macabre meant that he was the perfect choice to illustrate the tie-in comic to the Stephen King movie Creepshow. Wrightson went on to work with King several more times, producing illustrations for several of King's novels including the "restored" release of The Stand. Nobody rendered the uncanny like Bernie. He was a master draughtsman and he will be sadly missed.

WE WANT INFORMATION

I'm a member of a selection of different groups on Facebook and I have an ID on several forums, all of which have to do with musical gear in one form or another. They can be a great source of information about new gear as well as a rich source of advice on equipment performance and maintenance. But over the past six months or so the ratio of signal to noise has really gone down the tubes. Users post banal questions which leave me shaking my head in disbelief.

Well, let me put it like this: if you were editing a car magazine and somebody wrote in asking "I just bought (make and model of car), which is the best road to drive it on?" you'd just sigh gently and throw the letter in the bin, right? The question makes no sense, does it? Yet turn it into the completely equivalent question of "I just bought this pedal, what songs should I play?" and suddenly you have a bunch of bedroom experts pitching in with their ideas and suggestions. It's ludicrous.

This particular group has also attracted a number of trolls, the latest of which was arguing vehemently this week that nobody used guitar effects pedals properly until they were able to see other people doing so on YouTube. This kid wasn't even born when Hendrix was using his FuzzFace pedal, so he got short shrift from the older participants. Maybe it's the political climate these days, but I seem to be coming across examples of the Dunning - Kruger Effect more and more frequently. Life's too short to engage with people like this, I've realised. These days the solution is simply to block them and move on.

LONG WEEKEND

I have a three day weekend this weekend - I'm taking the day off on Monday as I'm seeing Devin Townsend at the Colston Hall tomorrow. I intend catching up on my reading as well as making some more music. I have a new microphone - a Shure Super 55 - and I'm looking forwards to hearing how my vocals sound through it.

PLEASANT DREAMS

I was right when I wrote last week that I thought I was getting a post-FAWM cold. It took me out for the first half of the week and I ended up spending most of Monday asleep. When I was awake I felt miserable. My ears were blocked, so I couldn't even listen to music properly. It wasn't nice at all, and I haven't recovered fully yet; it's still lingering on this morning.

One thing that I noticed this week as a result of sleeping until I woke up naturally rather than when the alarm clock went off is how much more positive and enjoyable dreams become in the later stages of sleep. This isn't a novel insight; I've read articles about sleep that make the same observation, although I couldn't track them down when I looked just now. The literature on the function of sleep is extensive and fascinating, as even the briefest delve into the internet reveals. Lack of sleep disrupts cognitive function and it can also make you fat. In recent years I've suffered from poor quality sleep, but since I cut down the number of layers of bedclothes on the bed things have improved a lot - being nice and warm in bed might seem like a good idea, but your body temperature needs to cool down before you can achieve the deepest, most restorative phases of sleep. In hot and humid countries, cooling down enough to enter slow-wave sleep is a problem but it shouldn't be an issue in the UK in March!

FAWM 2017 REVIEW

The first Sunday in March always feels strange to me - at least, it has done for the past nine years or so. There's a vague sense that I'm missing out on something, that I'm supposed to be doing something else rather than whatever it is I happen to be doing at this particular moment.

February Album Writing Month does that to you, I'm afraid. There's a sense of loss when it concludes, although as FAWMer Cloudboy said on the site's forum, the sadness is mixed with a great sense of accomplishment.

Last year I was able to devote all my attention to FAWM throughout the month. I listened to a serious percentage of the total output available on the site, and left over 900 comments on songs. I ended up with thirty one songs on my profile page, which was an extraordinary burst of creativity for me. This year I'm back at work, and my commute means that I have precious little spare time or energy to do anything creative during the week. Last month my musical activities were pretty much limited to the weekends, but somehow I still managed to contribute to or write twenty pieces of music. Today I think that the the level of effort involved in doing so has finally caught up with me, and I suspect I'm belatedly coming down with my traditional FAWM cold. Last night I went to bed early with a hot water bottle in an attempt to head it off at the pass, but this morning I woke up hacking and coughing.

At the risk of sounding immodest, one reason why I was able to produce so many songs this year is that I'm a much better musician than I was even five years ago. The progress I've made surprises me every time I listen to my latest work, and it's all to do with taking part in FAWM and 50/90. Another reason why I was able to still achieve a relatively high level of productivity this year (I still managed to exceed my tally from most of the other times I've taken part) is because I've made my workflow far more efficient than it used to be. My DAW of choice, Ableton Live has moved from being a tool that I used to polish up and finish off tracks that started out on my 32-track recorder to being the tool that I use to assemble them right from the get-go. There's far less transferring of WAV files between recorder and PC when I'm writing something these days. The main reason for this is that I've got my setup's latency low enough that I can play guitar and bass directly into the DAW. That has meant that rather than starting again each time I flub a take, I can just punch in before I go wrong and then keep going; conversely, the same capability has led to me being much more critical about my playing and I've found myself going back and fixing bum notes a lot more than I used to. My quality standards have definitely got higher.

But if I'm honest here, that has meant that this year I wasn't satisfied with a lot of what I managed to produce. I know that, given more time, I could have produced a higher standard of material. The first couple of tracks I recorded this year were little more than rough guitar sketches intended to get my song count back on target. I know that, like its novel-writing sister site NaNoWriMo, the FAWM ethos is to suppress one's "inner editor" and press on regardless, but I'm really not that kind of guy when it comes to music. The sort of stuff I record goes beyond simple arrangements with a single guitar and vocals. I want my stuff to sound like the prog rock musicians from my childhood that I adored back then (and still do today). When I start writing, it's always a case of "go big or go home" for me, and it's doing stuff that evokes a big-budget, massive production prog sound that gives me the satisfaction I'm after. I'm more of a Bob Ezrin than I am a Bob Dylan. By the third week I was beginning to get there with the music, but this year my voice really didn't want to play along. There isn't a track in this year's output where I'm happy with the quality of my vocals, and that's why so many of this year's tracks have other people doing the singing, or ended up being instrumentals.

Notwithstanding all that, a song is still a song. So, as I do every year, here's my list of the top five things I discovered as a result of working on last month's new material.

5. Don't be afraid of the low end

In past years I've religiously used a high pass filter to remove everything below about 75 Hz in my mixes because many "how to improve your mix" articles on home recording websites describe the content here as "rumble" and suggest that it's something to be avoided at all costs. But this year I have a new bass amp (a Phil Jones Bass "Briefcase Ultimate") and after hearing what my Chapman Stick sounded like though it miked up with a Shure SM57, I didn't add any other processing to the sound at all. I got a lot of positive comments on FAWM about the track below as a result, so this particular learning point was a no-brainer. And believe me, the PJB amp is an absolute gem.

4. Look to your signal chain

The longer your instrument cables become, the more problems you are likely to have. This isn't just because you start to lose higher frequencies as a result of signal attenuation; it's also more likely that they will pick up extraneous noise.

Related to this is a very simple lesson: cheap cables are noisier than better-quality ones. I bought some new ultra-short leads to replace the connections between my effects pedals that were at least twenty five years old, and suddenly all the fizzy crackly noise that used to be there when things were wound up loud went away. Having decent quality gear really does make a tremendous difference to the results you're going to get.

3. Tell a story

I really noticed this year that the songs I wrote where the lyrics had a definite narrative to them were the songs that people responded to most positively.

When your lyrics have a beginning, a middle, and an end, the listener will follow along with the journey that the song takes. And if you can build a sense of expectation as the story develops, so much the better. Similarly, developing the chorus so that a single line returns in different contexts that also reflect the story can also be fun.

2. The state your workspace is in makes a difference

This is something I really need to work on between now and the start of Fifty/Ninety in July. I have to get my workspace in order. It's cramped and cluttered and too full of stuff that is getting in the way of my being able to work, because it's a room that has had to fulfil a number of different purposes over the years: art space, bedroom and recording studio. As a result, the room has always felt like it's a compromise. I have finally concluded that it can't continue trying to be all three.

I'm not claustrophobic, but working under the bed this year felt like it was too confining and restrictive. And I had to keep shuffling sideways so that my head was in the right position to listen to the stereo image coming out of my monitors. That's not going to be doing my output any favours at all, so I plan on getting rid of the bed entirely and setting myself up with a proper, dedicated production desk that I can work at. Not sure when, but I will chronicle developments in the blog when they happen.

1. Take a step back to look at the bigger picture

I've noticed a subtle change in my writing process over the past year and it's difficult to put into words, but if you're familiar with the term metacognition you should get the basic gist of what I mean. I'm starting to analyse my process and on several occasions recently, I've stopped what I planned to do and instead thought to myself, "what could I do here if I was a better musician?" or "If I was listening to this, what would make me go 'wow' here?"

I wasn't always able to pull off the answer to those questions in a totally satisfying way, but even when I didn't, the results were very interesting to listen to. This approach has meant that my music has gone in different directions than I expected them to and I've pushed my capabilites forwards a little more.

I've also developed the habit of listening to what I'm doing more critically as a potential listener, right from each piece's inception. This year I actually abandoned a couple of attempts completely and started again because what I was doing didn't sound exciting or interesting enough. In the past I'd have carried on regardless and ended up with a terrible mess, but this year I've been much tougher on myself. The results that I achieved after a fresh start were much better - even if they sounded nothing like the music I had in my head when I started.

In other cases I realised that I needed to add more space between sections of a song to let each part 'breathe' more (and in one case, to literally allow me to breathe; I hadn't left enough space between verses to catch my breath!) Now that I'm working primarily within Ableton, this is much, much easier to do as it's a simple matter of selecting and dragging. The songs may have ended up longer, but they flow more freely.

So, I have some work to do on my recording space over the next few months. And I have some clearing out to do, too. For a packrat like me, that's a daunting prospect, but it needs to be done. Let's see how I get on.