January started off with a couple of quiet days, but then things started to get busier. And they continued to do so throughout the month. Right now, it looks like February will be crazier still.
But in a good way.
I make music. These days, I make lots of music in all sorts of different genres. My latest release is a collection of the songs I wrote during 2023's Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge. It's called An Unexpected Turn. It's the twenty-fifth full length album that I've written and recorded since December 2020, and that work rate is just as surprising to me as it is to you; until I got involved in Fifty/Ninety and FAWM, I'd often go years without writing anything at all. As always, the new album is available for streaming and download at Bandcamp, where you can also explore my extensive discography of older material.
Crikey, where did the last fortnight go?
It's been an eventful couple of weeks. I was called in at a couple of days' notice to help out a friend's band—not as a musician, but as a sound engineer! Their sound guy couldn't make a gig and so I spent a very interesting evening getting to grips with their PA's mixer, which was all controlled remotely from an iPad running Mackie's Master Fader Control app. It took a few numbers before I was sure enough of what I was doing to start making radical changes to their mix, but by the time they'd finished the first of their two sets I was well on top of things and confident enough to start tweaking the eq settings to fit what the room was doing. In the second half I started to really enjoy the gig, because I knew a lot of the material they were playing and that meant that I could tweak the mix to emphasise parts of their arrangements and build the song's energy (like cranking up the volume on Paul's guitar when it came in for the intro on their version of One Vision, Brian May style). What I was doing seemed to have the desired effect, as it got a fair chunk of the clientele up on their feet and dancing! I watched a short video of part of the event on social media afterwards and the mix sounded all right, even if I could only hear the clip as recorded on a phone. A few of my neighbours were there and they told me the band sounded really good. Importantly for me, the band themselves were all happy with what I did and I've been asked to do the sound at their next gig as well! I wasn't expecting a night out to have such a positive effect on my confidence, but doing a good job—and then having my skills recognised like that—has given my ego a much-needed boost.
Meanwhile, the February Album Writing Month website went live at the weekend and the forums are already very busy with people catching up with their old friends and helping to show new recruits the ropes. As this year marks FAWM's 20th anniversary, its founders have been in a celebratory mood and this is proving to be infectious: the levels of excitement are already sky high, even though the actual challenge (of writing 14 songs—which is a very decent album's worth of material by anyone's standards—and doing so entirely from scratch during February) doesn't start for another couple of days.
I've been reorganizing my home studio in anticipation both of FAWM and of the fact that I'll be getting two of my three Roland synths back from being mended later this week. This means that I'll need another tier for my big keyboard stand but rather than selling it and buying the next model up in the Jaspers range (which would have been a tremendous faff as well as being expensive), I have kludged together a solution using spare parts that I bought from Thomann's online shop for less than a quarter of the price of the five-tier stand. I finished putting that together yesterday, and after spending most of the day on my feet moving gear and wielding an Allen key with abandon oh boy, I'm sore today. Even after taking a couple of Paracetamol at bedtime I had a painful and very restless night last night. But the results of my hard work definitely look the part. With my old synths coming back online I will run out of inputs on the compact 8-channel Mackie mixer that I've been using for the past five or six years, so with the money I saved by not buying a new keyboard stand I bought a relatively compact Midas 16-channel mixer which should be a perfect fit on the stand's laptop shelf (if I've got the dimensions correct). I'm also keeping my fingers crossed that I've got my calculations of how much space is available on the new top tier of my stand correct, because now that I have eight extra inputs for my synth mix available, it'd be rude not to take advantage of at least some of them, right? So I've ordered a new Korg Wavestate MkII to sit next to the Korg Opsix I bought last spring. I've wanted a Wavestate for a couple of years after being blown away by what some of my friends on the Morphic Resonance channel on Twitch were doing with theirs and after Korg relaunched the Wavestate as the MkII last summer with increased polyphony and a raft of cool new features, I knew it was only a matter of time before I got one. The new mixer I've ordered has XLR outs instead of the quarter-inch jack sockets that the old one used for its main outputs, so there has been much swapping of cables in the studio to accommodate this. Because I didn't have the right sort of cables to directly swap over the ones from the old mixer, I also ended up relabelling the channels on the studio's main Mackie 22-channel mixer while I was at it. I have even returned my old Evans Echopet and Yamaha reverb unit (yes Lins, it still works!) to service, as the new mixer for the synths has not one, but two return channels which I can have fun with.
I've also been working on my own music a lot, of course. The new album is pretty much complete and this morning I've been adding the finishing touches to the cover artwork, ready for launching it in time for this Friday's Bandcamp Friday. And doing that meant that I could also put a new opening sequence together for my Thursday night live stream on Twitch. And while I was doing that, I also updated the closing titles to update the copyright notice to this year's date and remove all the mentions of Twitter from my social media listings, because screw that guy.
I'm knackered. Is it the weekend yet?
If there's one thing I've learned about music production in the last fifteen years or so (in the process of recording more than 1,300 of my own songs and instrumentals), it's that there are no hard and fast rules about what works and what doesn't. The mindset that a production will always be a success provided that you tick off all the tasks on that mythical, expert producer's checklist is a sure tell that someone's a novice at the game. I guarantee that if you read any music forums you'll rapidly come across a thread started by someone asking what the one piece of kit is that they should buy that is guaranteed to make all their recordings sound perfect, but that's as much of a pipe dream as is the idea that you can set the controls of your compressor to one miraculous position that will always make the sound it's working on truly sparkle. It's not about the gear. It's never about the gear. About the only rule that I don't break any more is the one about keeping your kick drum and bass tracks right in the centre of your mix, because doing otherwise goes against nature.
So after writing the previous blog post about not having more than five distinct sounds present at any given time on a track, this week I've been making music which has lots more than that. Because there's a get-out clause in that rule, one which also has a lot to do with the way I mentioned last week that allows a conductor to follow the performances of the eighty or so musicians in front of her without being overwhelmed with sound.
I'm talking about layering sounds.
I was working on a track this week and I had a rather nice synth patch (using my Korg Opsix, which I've had since last summer) that I'd used to answer a phrase played on my trusty Strat. The first few notes came through the mix fine, but as there was a long decay on the notes, the later ones lost definition and clarity. I didn't want to unbalance the mix by making the Opsix louder, but I needed some way of clueing the listener in to the fact that its notes were sounding. What to do?
The answer turned out to be very simple: I doubled the notes I was playing on the Opsix using an acoustic, grand piano patch on my Korg M3. The fast attack of the piano notes lets them cut through the mix perfectly and the short decay lets the Opsix "take over" each note of the phrase. The result sounds like a single instrument. Layering is huge fun. Layering is also how you make your music sound original, as it helps to give it a timeless quality because you're coming up with new timbres and shades rather than simply using the latest presets from the latest synth (which everyone else will have discovered, and they will all be using it in their music, too). The trouble with popular presets is that ten years from now, they are guaranteed to sound dated. Think of the Yamaha DX7's tubular bells patch on Live Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas, for example, or the "Digital Native Dance" preset on the Roland D-50 that you can hear at the beginning of the title track on Dave Lee Roth's 1988 album, Skyscraper (and Enya's albums wouldn't sound like Enya without that classic synth).
Layering's the key. So long as different instruments are doing the same thing, they will sound like a single unit. It's when they diverge and fight against each other that they become separate entities which each count towards that total of five or six sounds that the brain can attend to at any given moment. That's how a conductor can make out an errant performance in the violins or trumpets; it stands out. And that's why, this week I've been layering more than five instruments together in my mix: because they're playing in unison.
So don't worry about the rules. Just have at it, and see what new sounds you can come up with.
By local standards it's been bitterly cold here for the past few days. It was -4°C here last night, and it's expected to be even colder tonight. But there hasn't been any snow. Yesterday was a day of blue skies and sunshine; today, there's still sunshine, but it's having to make its way through a largely grey overcast.
The house's new central heating boiler has made a tremendous difference. Despite the surge in gas prices over the past few years, I've been using the gas fire in the lounge regularly when I'm mostly doing stuff downstairs. It warms the room up remarkably quickly and helps to dry my laundry, too. But I haven't hesitated to blip the heating on when the rest of the house starts to feel cold. I always layer up well before doing that, though. You can't go wrong with a fleece as a top layer, and I have dozens of the things. My old pairs of ski socks have been brought out of mothballs to keep my feet warm, too. They've been doing a grand job. A nice hot mug of tea has become a regular habit midway through the afternoons to keep the chill off, and aside from feeling like I ought to be hibernating, I'm doing okay.
I'm glad I'm retired; I don't know how I'd have time to do everything I plan on doing every day if I still had a job. I'm reading a prodigious number of books at the moment. I'm also sorting out several upgrades to the house, and I've even been recording some pieces to camera for FAWM (and there's more about that below). But I've spent a lot of my time so far this year working on new music. I'm happy to report that the work is proving to be even more intensely satisfying than it usually is. Last night I lay in bed listening to what I've recorded so far for my next album. I can hear myself locking in to the sound I was looking for, although this entailed going back to the tracks I'd worked on earlier and taking parts of the arrangements away, (which is something that I've seldom done, historically speaking) before I was satisfied that they were taking on their required shape. But it's difficult to argue with the neuroscience behind keeping what's going on in my mixes reasonably simple.
I've blogged about the phenomenon of Flow before (and the late Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi's TED Talk remains the best introduction to the subject that you'll get). The idea of the Flow state is contingent on the fact that our brains only have limited processing capacity and this can become so occupied by a skilful and challenging task that we completely lose track of the passing of time. The brain is literally too busy to notice the passing hours. There is a considerable amount of experimental evidence to support this idea, and researchers have even identified the areas of the brain that are responsible for what happens. It's reasonable to assume that if this happens in total, then each of our senses separately is also going to have an upper limit to the number of stimuli that it can attend to at any given moment. Personal experience gels with this idea. I know that there are only so many things I can consciously hear at the same time in a mix before I become overloaded and lose track of what's going on. Some research suggests that a person's ability to separate sounds out like this has a strongly heritable component, which makes sense to me; anecdotal evidence of "musical families" is commonplace (the most recent example I've personally encountered is in Geddy Lee's autobiography, My Effin' Life, where he relates how it was only after he started playing professionally as a musician and his own musical career began to gain impetus that he discovered that his father had also been a musician, one who had played in several bands in pre-war Poland).
There is also an element of skill involved in developing your ability to hear things accurately, of course; but even after years of doing this, the maximum number of things I can attend to simultaneously in a mix has only grown by two or three at the most. In terms of best practice, the audio industry seems to have settled on a figure of about five discrete elements that can be added to a mix before things sound muddled and unfocused. That's a surprisingly low number, isn't it? I used to exceed that figure quite regularly.
I used to tell myself that this was because it can't be a rigid upper limit. After all, the conductor in a symphony orchestra must be able to attend to the performances of some eighty or so musicians at the same time, although conductors may be using selective attention techniques or the cocktail party effect as cognitive assists that allow them to sidestep the number of things that are consciously being listened to at any given moment. I'm surprised by how little concrete information there is on the web about the matter, though. I thought I'd be able to find much more, and I've spent most of this morning diving in to the subject online because I find it absolutely fascinating. As in most things, we're likely to rate our hearing and listening skills as being much better than they really are (particularly when we're talking about them on Quora or Reddit, it seems). In reality, we can be every bit as blind to auditory gorillas as we can to visual ones (and the titles of those two papers are glorious examples of just how fond academics can be of movie references).
Of course I would never wish to make things any harder for the listener than they need to be, but I decided last week that I needed to confirm the points made above experimentally. I wanted to hear for myself whether or not it made a difference if I imposed a limit to the number of things that are going on in a mix at any given moment. So, as I've worked on the new album, I've been trying to ensure that each track never has more than six discrete audio elements playing at any given time.
I'm not counting mix elements such as reverb or delay return tracks in that figure, as the sounds which these effects produce are modifications of other audio elements that are already present in the mix and the ear will hear them together as one discrete noise rather than two different things; instead I'm referring to the sounds made by the instruments I'm playing (both physical and virtual) which make up the underlying musical performance.
I can help the prospective listener to distinguish between each sound further by ensuring that they're separated spatially by panning left and right in the stereo field, or by moving things from front to back by using relative volume levels and effects—like reverb, which I mentioned just now; the more reverb that is applied to a sound, the further away we interpret its source as being. When a conductor hears a particular violin player needing adjustment, I'm sure that the position of the player is highly significant in allowing him to separate that aspect of the performance from what the ensemble is doing. So for this album I've been paying a lot more attention to placement. I also separate things by frequency (using equalization, or eq to ensure that each part of the mix gets its particular "sweet spot" to itself).
I've also been using my DAW's automation lanes a lot more, which means that I can alter the parameters of individual mix elements as they are playing rather than leaving everything set in one place from the outset (which might be optimal for the quiet part in a track's introduction, but less so when things in the arrangement begin to get denser and louder). For example, when a guitar part plays for the first time I might position the solo instrument in the centre of the mix, but when it returns with a second guitar part playing a harmony, I'll pan the two guitars to 45 left and 45 right. I've also noticed (although it's not an original observation by any means) that when a motif is repeated, the brain recognises it. That means its return can be mixed at a lower volume than its original appearance and the listener will still hear it.
And so help me, to my (admittedly biased) ears this approach seems to be working. Last night I was struck by how much better the tracks were sounding. The mixes are clearer, yes—but the music also seemed more enjoyable to listen to. Was that because after doing this for as long as I have I'm getting better at my craft, or was it because my brain didn't have to work as hard to figure out what it was hearing and could just relax and enjoy the music instead?
And there's a question for the ages...
But the current plan is for the website to assume normal operations again two weeks today, on January 25th.
The publicity drive to promote the challenge has already started, and yours truly has been doing his bit to spread the word about how much fun it is. If you like the idea of writing an album's worth of new songs in a single month, then FAWM is the place for you!
The decorations have been taken down. The tree has been disassembled and put back in the loft. Traditionally, everything should come down on Twelfth Night and if you're an Anglican (who is someone who follows Church of England rituals) that means the 5th January. However, as that Wikipedia page will inform you, other parts of Christianity take Twelfth Night to be January 6th and this is convenient for me, as I only cleared everything away this afternoon.
I was right when I blogged yesterday about how I expected that putting everything back in the loft would prove to be much easier than getting it out last month had been. It took me all of five minutes.
Now all I have to do is go around the house with the vacuum cleaner. My artificial tree, which I've had for years, is so authentic that it even sheds lots of needles on the carpet...
I worked in the aviation industry for twenty years, developing training material for pilots and ground crew of a bewildering variety of aircraft from the venerable C130 Hercules to the Eurofighter and the F-16. As a result, I know a little bit more than the average person about how an aircraft is put together and how it should (and normally does) work.
I have never flown on a Boeing 737 if I could possibly avoid doing so. I simply don't trust the aircraft, and I never have done in any of the many iterations its design has gone through over the years. The airframe's safety record is questionable, to say the least; in the 1990s it was notorious for having problems with the construction of its rudder and the vertical stabilizer (the tail fin), which were the cause of an alarming number of incidents (several involving multiple fatalities) over the years. Then there was the time an Aloha Airlines 737 decided to turn itself into a convertible in the middle of a flight...
I was hoping that Boeing had fixed things with its new 737-MAX model, but there have been further fatalities and incidents where components of the flight control system were to blame, the most recent incident occurring last month. Today's news of an exit door plug blowing out on a 737-MAX during a flight hasn't exactly convinced me that the aircraft is any safer today.
And as you asked: the seating on modern airliners is locked on to rails which run the length of the passenger cabin floor. The cabin can be reconfigured with different seat pitches (the distance between your seat and the ones in front of you and behind you) and on busy routes seat pitches will be reduced so that the airline can put more passengers on each flight. If you've flown on passenger jets regularly, you know just how tightly you can get crammed in if you're unfortunate enough to find yourself flying a busy route. Back in the golden age of air travel, we may have come off a flight reeking of cigarettes (even if we didn't smoke), but at least our knees weren't wedged up against the back of the seat in front of us, nor did we have the passenger in front's headrest shoved in our faces as soon as the "fasten seat belts" sign went off (you may have realised that the romance of air travel has long since evaporated as far as I'm concerned). For any commercial aircraft to be allowed to carry passengers, it must pass an evacuation test. At present, for passenger aircraft with more than 44 seats, everyone must be able to safely exit the aircraft in just 90 seconds. As you put more passengers on an aircraft you will eventually hit a point where you need extra doors on it in order for everybody to get out within the mandated period of time. Aircraft are built on an assembly line, much as cars are, so to simplify construction the holes for the extra doors are always there—but on most aircraft the hole is then filled in with a separate plug and window so that after the cabin liner has been fitted and the exterior has been painted, it looks like the rest of the fuselage. It was one of these plugs for an extra door that blew out which is why, in the photographs of the Alaska Airlines 737, the hole isn't window-sized, it's exit door-sized.
The big question for me (and it's a doozy) is why, given the aircraft was pressurized at the time, the plug failed in such a way as to leave the aircraft rather than being held in place by cabin pressure. There would appear to be a quite fundamental design issue with the way that the plug is constructed.
Aircraft are horrendously complicated things. Design is hard. But even so, there would appear to be something seriously wrong with the process of building the aircraft if that failure mode managed to get through all the tests, checks, and simulations the airframe would have gone through. America's Federal Aviation Administration clearly thinks so too, and the aircraft type has been grounded.
I'm still not sure what sort of year 2024 is going to be, but with Storm Henk dropping inordinate amounts of water across England and Wales over the last couple of days and a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Japan on New Year's Day the signs aren't what you might call promising. Up the road in Gloucester this morning, the Alney Island Wetland Nature Reserve is living up to its name and is knee-deep in water. Today, Tewkesbury is surrounded by floodwater, although that isn't much of a surprise because it usually is after it's rained as heavily as it has done over the past 48 hours. This time ten years ago I was travelling up to Malvern quite regularly and I blogged back then about having to change my route to get there and back because the roads I'd been using were submerged. The railway tunnel at Chipping Sodbury is flooded again, too. The rest of the country isn't faring much better, either, as this summary of things in the Guardian shows.
We can expect more of this in the future, and the amount of rainfall we get is likely to increase. Why? Because the warmer the Earth's atmosphere gets, the more water vapour it is capable of holding. What goes up must come down again, so that means it will rain more heavily, or more frequently, or most likely both.
So it's probably a good thing that the sewage infrastructure on the main road through the village was being inspected this week. A lot of it has been upgraded as the village has grown in size with several sets of roadworks putting in new mains taking place in the last decade. The northern end of the village hasn't flooded since this was done; it used to do so quite regularly, but as most of the area was fields back when I first moved here, it didn't have much of an impact on the locals other than requiring them to make a detour to get to Wotton-Under-Edge. However, there's now a large housing estate on the area that used to be prone to flooding, because land on flood-prone areas is cheap (that's why so many housing estates built in the last quarter century have been constructed on flood plains; some developers don't care about insurance overheads and many buyers have to bear the burden of flood risk, or simply do without cover altogether simply to be able to afford to live in some areas of the country). Problems can be exacerbated when new arrivals to an area are unaccustomed to flooding and lack the watery sense of place possessed by families who have lived there for several generations. The West Country in general and the Somerset Levels in particular are the most obvious examples of what happens when a burgeoning population discovers the principal reason why the location of the new housing that's been built for them is as conveniently and profoundly flat as it is. Thanks to the accelerating pace of climate change, the prospects for the Levels in particular are pretty grim. I planned for the long term back when I was looking for a property down here back in the 1990s. One of the most important criteria I had when I was choosing somewhere to live was that it should be at least 40 metres above sea level. The elevation here is roughly 45 metres.
Before the new estate at the north end of the village was built, a hefty new sewage system was put in and the culvert under the road for the Little Avon River was rebuilt to allow for a greater flow of water because thankfully the local authority at the time knew what they were doing. Other parts of the country have clearly been less lucky. Nearly 4,000 of the flood defence schemes that have been built in the UK have been so neglected and poorly maintained that they are effectively useless. You can blame the Tories for that particular mess. After all, it's their fault.
I spent yesterday afternoon sorting out lots of stuff in the loft and clearing a fair amount of space downstairs as a result. And as of yesterday, I can now get into the loft without having to balance precariously on the top of my stepladder. Ollie from Access4lofts did a grand job fitting a new telescopic loft ladder and rebuilding the hatch into the loft from scratch so that it was strong enough to support everything. He did a really nice job of things, and I no longer feel anxious about having to get up into the roof.
Tomorrow I'll be taking the Christmas tree and decorations down and packing them away for another year. Putting everything back in the loft will be a breeze compared with what getting it down was like last month.
Welcome to 2024. Let's try to make this a good year, shall we?
It's such a trivial thing that I feel daft for typing this, but 2024 has led to me adding another row of entries to this site's Blog Archive page. It's something I only need to do every three years, and it always feels like I've taken another momentous step forward in my blogging journey. After all, I've been writing this thing for more than two decades now and as a result there's quite a lot of it. I didn't blog about doing this in 2021, but I did mention adding the previous row, way back in 2018.
2018. Crikey. The world has changed a lot since then.
I was in bed by 11:15 last night, although I was still awake when the fireworks started going off at midnight. I stayed sober last night, as I didn't feel like celebrating much; New Year's Eve is boring and rather depressing when you spend it on your own. This morning started off much better, with Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker on the telly, playing live from the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna (as the morning always starts on January 1st for me). There were plenty of polkas and waltzes to wake me up just as effectively as the large mug of coffee I'd already finished before the concert kicked off. The programme of this year's music was a varied one; I believe eight of the pieces had never been featured before. The BBC's broadcast audio was somewhat dry but as I mentioned last year, I remembered that my surround sound amp has an impulse response that was recorded in the Golden Hall itself, so that's how I had it set for the show. This put all the reverberation back into the mix and it sounded glorious that way.
Unlike last year I'd already updated most of the other pages on the site so all I had to do this morning was upload them. But because I'm a nerd I have also updated my monthly spreadsheet of my energy usage and as I'd hoped, last month's total was a whopping 514 kWh less than the previous year. The final figure for the month was 1489 kWh compared with 2003 kWh in 2022. But as I commented on yesterday's blog, last month was exceptionally mild.
But like last year, I'll be in the studio this afternoon noodling away and making music, as I always do.