February Album Writing Month starts on Friday. Once again, people all over the world (who are known collectively as FAWMers) will be trying to write an album's worth of music before the end of the month; the target is to write fourteen songs in twenty-eight days. To get ready for FAWM, I've been getting to know my new studio PC. In the process I found myself accidentally recording an entire album in just three days.
Over the last couple of days I've been playing with the session view in Ableton Live 10, a part of the program that I haven't really explored before (and I've been using Live since version 8.) Previously I'd stuck with Ableton's arrangement view, because that more closely resembles the way that other Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software uses to present what you've recorded. Session view is very different; it allows you to assemble a collection of loops and samples of MIDI data and audio files—which are collectively known as clips— in a table format. You can then trigger them by clicking on them. You put different versions of a loop or audio that you don't want to play simultaneously in each column. You put sounds that you do want to hear simultaneously in a row. You can trigger each clip individually or an entire row of clips together by clicking on a button in the clip, or in the right-most column of the window. My Push version 1 also lets you trigger these samples by tapping physical buttons on the device, which lights up in a range of colours to show that they've been triggered. It's a very satisfying way of interacting with your recordings.
But hidden out of the way at the bottom of Live's interface for each clip (you have to click on a tiny button labelled "L" to reveal it) are a set of controls which are called the launch controls, and these are the controls I've been learning and playing with this weekend. It's been a very enlightening couple of days.
Live allows you to control what happens after each clip has finished playing, and you can do so in some interesting ways that make the sequence in which a group of clips play back unpredictable. You can specify two different things to happen when playback of a clip ends, and you can assign different probabilities to each of them. So, for example, I might decide that nine times out of ten I want a clip to play again as soon as it's finished, but for ten percent of the time I want Live to play any other clip in the same column, chosen at random. I might set up another clip so that seventy five percent of the time Live will go back to the previous clip in the column and twenty five per cent of the time move on to the next clip in the column. I can also make multiple copies of a single clip but tell Live to play different durations of each copy (in bars, beats, or sixteenths) so that particular motifs begin to drift out of synch with each other. This is a simpler, computerised version of the tape manipulation technique that Steve Reich used for his early minimalist work It's Gonna Rain.
Ableton also provide downloadable packs of tools for Max For Live which extend what you can do with the DAW. Over the weekend I've been playing with the probability pack by Sonic Faction, which allows you to introduce further randomisation and chaotic behaviour into your compositions. It does this by manipulating the MIDI note data that you've recorded for a specific instrument before it plays.
To put it simply, the approaches described above all mean that every time you press the play button to hear what your composition sounds like, you will hear something different.
Music of this sort was originally determined by throwing one or more dice, so it became known as aleatoric music after the Latin word for dice, alea. The related genre of generative music refers to music that is composed according to a set of rules or systems, usually programmed into a computer. One of generative music's chief practitioners is the wonderful Brian Eno, who appeared on the BBC's Click programme recently to demonstrate how it works.
I'm a novice when it comes to this sort of thing, and I'll quite happily admit it. I'm no expert, but I love learning about new ways of making music. Over the last few days I've tried out five different combinations of the approaches described above in Live, and I can hear how the results I got changed as I began figuring out what sorts of effect randomness was having on the music and started to make those effects work for the soundscape, rather than disrupting it. In the BBC programme linked above, Brian Eno describes his process of leaving a generative piece running and then modifying the rules in the system to make what he was hearing more aesthetically pleasing. I was using Live in exactly the same way. I found myself sitting for long stretches just listening to the sounds that Live was making, gradually adding in more and more probability for each instrument to do nothing; space and silence turn out to be fantastically important elements of this sort of music.
The versions of each track that I finally rendered out remind me of compositions ranging from Louis and Bebe Barron's "electronic tonalities" for the science fiction movie Forbidden Planet to Mike Oldfield's seminal work Tubular Bells. I ended up with just over forty minutes of audio that sounds interesting enough that I think it can stand up to a listener's focused attention—sounds that are not necessarily musical, but which are nevertheless sufficiently complex and engaging to be worth listening to. Forty minutes used to be around the length of a long playing record (and, by extension, just less than the duration of a single side of a C90 compact cassette) so it didn't take me long to think up an album name, knock up a cover, and put the results up on Bandcamp as a free download. Fans of eighties prog rock should recognise the visual pun/reference in the artwork and the album's name. Click on the cover to visit Bandcamp and get your copy:
I know that this sort of composition isn't everyone's cup of tea. It won't necessarily be to your taste, but as it's a free download it's not going to cost you anything other than your time, so I hope you'll give it a listen. It's fun to hear on headphones, as I've placed each instrument at a different point in the sound stage—and some sounds move around within the space created.
Netflix released the first episode of season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery on Friday, so I poured myself a glass of something red and sat down to watch when I got home from work. As I said on Twitter immediately afterwards, Discovery is definitely my happy place.
So I do not understand the YouTube reviewers I've seen who have been griping about how the series isn't "proper" Trek. I watched one pasty-looking white kid getting upset that the show has "too much diversity" in it. He had completely missed the point that the original series (TOS) had a massively diverse cast and featured television's first ever interracial kiss. He was way too young to have any chance of contextualising TOS in terms of its rejection of contemporary attitudes; it was made in the mid 60s, way before he was born, and he was clearly unable (or deliberately chose not) to understand that TOS's portrayal of a time in which racism or intolerance for the Other were no longer relevant was not just innovative, but shocking. Back when the show was made, both views were deplorably widespread.
There are lots of YouTubers like him (and—surprise surprise—they all seem to be young, white males) who have decided that because they're seeing their values threatened by the show, they're going to be whiny bitches about it. Good luck to them; Gene Roddenberry would have laughed in their faces. In my opinion this is the first series in the franchise to be true to Roddenberry's original vision since the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). Captain Picard epitomised the values that Roddenberry espoused from the start. I can't wait to see where Michael Chabon takes Sir Patrick Stewart in the new series, still in production and being kept robustly under wraps. I hope that the upcoming show upsets the bigoted, fat, white guys just as effectively as Discovery is clearly doing.
The writers on Discovery have found their zone with surprising rapidity (much as I love TNG, it's generally accepted that the show didn't find its feet until the third year of production.) They are really having fun with the material, particularly with the established characters. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is still a badass and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is still endearingly gauche. Saru (Doug Jones) is a delight to watch every moment he's on screen and I actually cheered when he said "Oh dear..." during a tense moment in Friday's episode. The new characters, too, have fitted in brilliantly. Anson Mount is perfect as Captain Pike and Tig Notaro's laconic engineer Jet Reno is, quite simply, glorious. Told that her ship is plummeting towards a pulsar that will incinerate it, she retorts "Oh, what a relief. I thought we were all going to die." The part was written specifically for her, and it shows.
And the quality of writing is first-rate. It was something that Captain Pike did, early on in Friday's episode, that really impressed me as a piece of writing I didn't realise that the show needed: he got the bridge crew to tell him their names. From that moment on, he addresses each person on the bridge by name. It has changed the whole dynamic of interactions between the crew, because they have become people, with names to hang their personalities on. It was a masterful thing to do, as it helps the audience as much as it helps the Captain (and no doubt it also helps the actors playing the characters, for that matter.)
I'm going to be watching the episode again today, at least once. And I can't wait until Friday to see what happens next...
This week I've been pushing my Internet connection harder than I've done in years: I've been installing all the music software I use on the new computer for the studio (which, like its predecessor, will be referred to as the Monolith from now on.) Since Wednesday evening I've downloaded nearly half a terabyte of material. A lot of that is sound files—the drum sounds for the basic installs of EZDrummer and Superior Drummer come in at around 100 Gb, and that's without all the expansion packs that I've bought for them over the years. Another big chunk of download time was devoted to the factory packs for Ableton 10, several of which are over 5 Gb, and I had several dozen of those to reinstall.
At least we've moved on from the days of downloading individual files and having to manually install them. iZotope, Arturia, Toontrack and Native Instruments all provide product management software that handles updating and authorization automatically. Ableton allows you to download and install all your factory packs from within the main application. Both these things have proved a godsend over the last few days and yesterday evening I'd got everything more or less back to how it was on the old machine.
I migrated the hard disk drives from the old PC into the new system without a hitch, so I haven't had to shuttle all my old project files across with external drives or memory sticks. I have a one terabyte drive for the OS and I now have a grand total of eleven terabytes of storage on five separate drives for everything else.
That should keep me going for a while, I reckon.
Last night I was in bed by half-past nine. I slept for twelve hours, although I woke up at around three in the morning when the blanket fell off my bed and I got cold. I feel like I'm still catching up on a sleep deficit that I've accumulated over the last year, but I'm also aware that sleeping excessively is a sign of depression. That's not exactly a surprise: I'm at a very low ebb right now and going to bed is my preferred way of trying to recover my equilibrium. That, and eating chocolate. I've got some way to go right now.
However, I no longer feel guity about doing so (the sleeping part, that is; the eating chocolate part is something I'll just have to deal with.) I'm reading Matthew Walker's excellent book Why We Sleep at the moment, but while I'm pleased that I got more than the amount of sleep I should have last night, I'm less than reassured by what the book tells me about what my longer term sleep habits are doing to me. During the week I'm lucky if I get six hours of sleep a night without interruption, and this significantly elevates my risk of dying from all sorts of things from cancer to car crashes. It also elevates my likelihood of sufffering from obesity and depression. Yeah, no surprise there, then.
One main thesis in Walker's book is that not only is Western society not geared around the concept of allowing people a good night's sleep, it actively erodes any chance of us getting the sleep we need. Work culture pressures us to be awake for longer and longer stretches, although we seem to be evolutionarily suited to taking a nap after lunch and then sleeping eight hours a night. We should all be adopting the Spanish lifestyle, and yet the Spanish themseves are abandoning it.
Until I read Walker's book, I had no idea just how much damage we do to ourselves by not getting enough sleep. There is no such thing as a moderate lack of sleep. We need a full eight hours of it every night. His response to claims by people that they only need four hours' sleep a night is unequiovocal: they're lying (Mrs Thatcher, the prime example of the four-hours-is-enough school of thought, went on to develop Alzheimer's; although he does not mention her by name, Walker says that chronic lack of sleep is a significant predictor of whether or not you will develop the disease in later life.) Newspapers made excuses that Thatcher had a gene which meant she could function with less sleep; it's even been referred to as the Thatcher Gene despite there being absolutely no evidence whatsoever that she had it. And again, Walker is blunt: the chances of you being struck by lightning are higher than the odds of you having this particular gene.
I need to sleep more. I just need to find a way of making that happen.
When I first got myself a presence on the Internet, it was with Demon Internet. This website was hosted there from its initial creation up until 2008. I'd stuck with Demon after they were bought by Scottish Telecom in 1998. Scottish Telecom later became Thus, who offshored their support to Bangalore, stopped investing in infrastructure, and let Demon's service go down the tubes. I gave up and cancelled my account in May 2008 and moved my email and hosting here to IDNet, where I've been ever since.
Even so, I was sad to hear yesterday that Demon's current owners Vodafone have finally decided to call it a day and pull the plug. It feels like the end of an era.
Tonight is Twelfth Night (unless you count the twelve days of Christmas starting with Boxing Day, which some people apparently still do), so I'll be taking the Christmas tree down this afternoon. I'm going to miss the tree in the room with its bright multicoloured lights. Oddly enough, the tree seems to have reflected the unsettled nature of Christmas this year—the first two sets of lights I put on it both failed after a few days, and the second set tripped the RCD in the main fuse box and took out everything else in the house with it when they blew. The first set to fail were a set of red LED lights that I've used for ages, and they were favourites of mine. The second set was a net of red and green LEDs that already had a few nonfunctioning lights on it (they were extremely cheap, bought in a post-Christmas sale a few years back, and the wiring wasn't particularly robust) so I ended up using an old set of lights with red, green, blue and yellow LEDs that I used to pin to the window frame in the living room until I had the double glazing replaced. They've been cheering me up over the last week or so and I'll be sorry to take them down again. But with the tree down, I'll be saying goodbye to Christmas (such as it was) for another year.
With Christmas behind me, this week I will start thinking about next month and the return of FAWM, or February Album Writing Month. Every February I attempt to write fourteen new songs (an album's worth of material, in other words) in just 28 days. I've been taking part every year for more than ten years, and it's become one of the high points of my year. I won't be getting anywhere near my all-time record of 31 songs that I achieved back in 2016, but I hope to at least reach the challenge target of 14.
In preparation for FAWM I spent yesterday evening rewriting my Music Page to bring it up to date with my latest musical adventures. It's become quite an epic account of exactly why I am so obsessed with listening to and making music. It's also got some nice photos of my guitar collection. If you're interested in how I put together a track, and what I use to make the music I make, you'll find a wealth of information there. And when I say wealth, I mean it; I was up until after midnight adding all sorts of new stuff and sorting everything into subsections with a vague semblance of order...
Next month I will be applying similar levels of compulsiveness to the process of creating music, too. Keep checking back here and I promise to treat you to some of the results.
The temperature dropped to -4°C on Thursday night and barely got above freezing outside all day yesterday. Last night it was -5°C here. Today the temperature had only reached 2°C by noon. This is the coldest it's got all winter here, but there is no forecast of snow. I've really noticed the house cooling down over the last couple of days, probably because I left the heating off for long stretches and the cold has permeated through the brickwork from outside. Yet with the heating coming on for just an hour or two this morning, it's still 17°C in here; not hot, but comfortable enough.
I've just put the heating back on, all the same. While I fully intend to chill out this afternoon, I don't want to be chilly. The postman has just delivered a Joe Satriani DVD and once I've taken the Christmas decorations down, I'm going to plonk myself down on the sofa and watch one of my favourite guitar players for a couple of hours.
And after I've finished watching Mr. Satriani, I shall fire up YouTube and watch some more episodes of my new absolute favourite show, That Pedal Show. I discovered it as a result of Dan and Mick having Devin Townsend on as a guest about a month ago, and their approach to guitars, effects and amplification is even more obsessive and enthusiastic than my own. For me, their YouTube channel is like catnip. If you were going to design a television show that appealed exclusively to me, this is exactly what it would look like.
Every show I've watched has been an absolute delight, and when they had their favourite guitars refretted last month by Bristol's very own Jonny Kinkead, I watched over an hour of television devoted to pulling bits of wire out of a bit of wood and putting new wire back in, uttery transfixed. I promise you, you are unlikely to see a more satisfying sixty-seven minutes of craftsmanship on your screen any time soon.
Do check out the show, it's a guitarist's idea of heaven.
Last night I went to a New Year's Eve party for the first time in nearly a decade, and had a lovely time. My thanks go to Paul and Julie for the invitation. I've struggled with things this Christmas, and I very nearly cried off at the last minute, but then I realised that I needed to get out of the house and do something, so off I went. And I'm glad I did, as I enjoyed myself a lot.
I got home sometime after 2 am and woke up this morning well after 10. There doesn't seem to be any sign of a hangover yet, but that might be because I haven't finished sobering up...
As I type this, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft conducted its flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) Ultima Thule a little under eight hours ago. New Horizons is now a billion miles further from the Sun than Pluto is. It's so far away, in fact, that radio signals which left the spacecraft after the encounter have yet to make it back to Earth, even though the signals are travelling at the speed of light.
The signals should be received at around 15:30 UTC this afternoon, and I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that the flyby was successful.