Another FAWM draws to a close tonight and after a month of writing and recording pieces of music, tomorrow life will return to normal. The first year I had a go, I thought that writing fourteen songs in a month was an impossible goal. I think I managed to record three, and - let's be honest about this - they weren't very good. So far this year I've uploaded 21 songs (I guess I don't know when to quit) and several of them are good enough to each a wider audience, in my humble opinion. At the weekend I'll do my yearly "what have I learned" blog post about the writing and recording process, but for now I'm having something to eat and then I'll decide whether or not to have a go at putting together song #22.
Edit: Needless to say, I went for it - and although I needed to go back and tweak the vocals later, I was really happy with the results. I ended up with a vibe that is reminiscent of Ommadawn, so when I got to the point where I recorded the third and final guitar track, I thought to myself "I wonder what Mike Oldfield would do here?" The end result is called "Hie thee to the east."
After updating the blog on Sunday I fired up all my gear again and recorded track number 19. It's ended up being one of my favourite tracks this year. It's another instrumental with a basic track laid down with the Korg M3. I hadn't realised just how good the thing's choral patches sound when they're recorded as part of a song, and I think I'll be using them again. I'm playing Chapman Stick over the top of that, solo'd the melody on the Theremin (in one take!) and then I added another layer of synth sounds for the embellishments. The result is called "Ancient Temples."
I took the night off on Monday (I was in bed by 9), but on Tuesday I was back at it after waking up at half past three in the morning with the idea that I ought to write a song in which every line consisted of phrases that might explain the YOLO acronym in a slightly more entertaining fashion. I came up with literally dozens of lines (I ended up using just over half of them for the final song). For some reason (presumably lack of sleep) I'd also decided to make it a waltz, with a very basic structure; the idea was that the unchanging verses make it sound relentless and a thundering Stick bass line was intended to emphasise that. When I started to record it, I realised that the only way it was going to work was if each line was spoken rather than sung. As the thing was sounding rather weird already, I thought I'd ratchet up the eccentricity still further and bring out my best Tom Waits impersonation. The end result was six minutes of... well, something or other - that is called "young ocelots linger ominously."
Yesterday I felt much more energetic when I got home (for reasons that will become clear in a moment) so I headed straight upstairs and started work on track number 21. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to record until I came up with a drum pattern on the Korg which used a kit I'd not really played with before. One of the samples on the kit sounds like a malfunctioning printer, so I called the thing "Broken Inkjet" and the whole song pretty much wrote itself. I spent a little bit more time on this one, figuring out how to make each track work with the others rather than fighting for bandwidth. I also took time to listen to the results over my monitors with my eyes closed. I was surprised how much more detail I heard when I did this, presumably because I wasn't being distracted by the visuals of the Ableton interface. I think I ended up with a better final mix as a result. See what you think...
I apologise for that awful pun on the last line, by the way - although if you're under 30 you probably won't even get it.
All the coffee machines in the office have been out of action for the past couple of weeks so my caffeine intake has dropped through the floor. I've really noticed the difference, too - I've been distracted, lethargic, grumpy and I ache all over. Last week I decided I needed to do something about this, so I ordered an Aerobie Aeropress coffee maker to keep on my desk. It was delivered yesterday, and I'm already a big fan. It's ridiculously easy to use, simple to clean, and makes coffee that's a cross between filter coffee and cafetiere style. It tastes great and after a couple of mugs of proper coffee I felt much more like my old self.
After I mentioned I'd got an Aeropress a surprising number of friends responded with messages saying they'd got one too and they all said how good they were. I used to think that all Aerobie sold were record-breaking flying discs. I'm delighted to discover that this is not the case...
I love Sunday mornings. By breakfast time on Sunday I've managed to unwind after the working week and I have the whole day to potter about and do the stuff I've been looking forwards to doing for the last six days. I wish there were two Sundays in the week, to be honest. This morning I didn't get out of bed until after ten; the virus (or whatever it was I had at the beginning of the month) is still lingering and the aches and pains haven't totally gone away, but I feel much better than I did a week ago. The washing machine is whirring away in the kitchen and I'm listening to Samuel Barber's "Symphony in One Movement" on the radio as I type. When I've brought the blog up to date I'll be heading back upstairs to continue my efforts for FAWM this year, because despite already reaching my goal of writing fourteen tracks this month, I've kept going.
After last week's return to guitar playing, I moved on to the bass. Bass playing can be hard on the fingertips if you've let things slide for a while, but I was surprised just how quickly my calluses came back. The first track I recorded was called "Subdued" and, as with last week's guitar parts, rather than squirting the signal directly into the desk I recorded the bass part through a mic placed in front of my bass amp. Once again, I was very pleased with the difference in the resulting sound.
After free-form noodling, the next bass recording I made had a traditional song structure, complete with me singing. This one's called "On the cards." Again, I laid down the backing track with the Korg, played the bass, and then recorded the vocals - this time there are three tracks of me singing. After tidying things up in Ableton (and the more I use the software, the more I like it) I uploaded the results to FAWM for song number sixteen...
...and that was about it for the rest of the week. I kept getting home late from work and I just didn't have the spare time to record anything else until Saturday morning, by which time we'd reached the final week of February and it was time to switch to my next instrument, the Chapman Stick. Again, I'm using a mic pointing at the amp, and again, I got results much closer to what I could hear when I played (I think the principal lesson I have learnt this year doing FAWM is, quite simply, "record stuff with an amp when you can.") This is a rather chilled instrumental inspired by memories of a glider flight I made a long time ago over the South Downs, called "Drifting Cirrus."
After a producing that, I was sufficiently fired up to have a go at recording another track so after a quick break I decided to attempt something a bit more ambitious. I've always been a huge fan of the band King Crimson (and Tony Levin's Stick playing in particular) so in a fit of hubris I decided that I would try to emulate my heroes. The drum track is extremely basic - certainly not worthy of Bill Bruford - but nevertheless I feel like I captured something of the spirit of their approach to music so I've called it "A little bit red." It's got some nice feedback over on the FAWM site, too.
So there you have it, so far this month - eighteen tracks and it's still not March. This afternoon I'll have a go at another piece. I hope to at least equal last year's total of 20 tracks, and at the moment I feel fairly confident that I'll manage it. As before, stay tuned, and thanks for listening!
I toyed with the idea of doing a third song yesterday evening but instead I watched the latest episode of Howard Goodall's excellent series on The Story of Music on BBC HD. The programme opened with him conducting a chamber orchestra playing a piece of music that sounded vaguely familiar, although it took me a few moments to identify it. When I realised what it was I laughed out loud. If you haven't been watching the series, do give it a try - Goodall (perhaps best known as the composer of these classics) knows his stuff, and he's very good at explaining exactly why composers like Purcell, Beethoven and Liszt were as innovative as they were. Last night's episode, for example, explained why Liszt's style of playing forced pianoforte manufacturers to switch to iron frames from the traditional wood: Lizst's somewhat energetic playing style was too much for the flimsier instruments and he tended to destroy them (a hundred years before Pete Townshend was doing the same thing with guitars!) He also delved into the murkier side of Richard Wagner's career and made a convincing argument for taking down Der Meister's reputation several notches.
This morning the aches and pains weren't as bad as yesterday, and after coffee and croissants I felt up for recording another song. This week's challenge on FAWM is to write a song with a title that's an oxymoron, and I decided to take the song itself into profoundly contradictory territory. I found myself imagining what Rammstein would sound like singing about kittens, possibly as a result of watching Mr Goodall talking about Wagner yesterday. That made me remember Randall Munroe's cartoon about cat proximity and once again the song pretty much wrote itself (well, actually it's closely related to the Leonard Cohen pastiche I did last weekend, but if an idea works once, why not try it twice, eh?) So here's "The Endearing War on Terror"...
In a perfect world I'd get Werner Herzog to sing the vocals, but sadly I didn't have the resources to make that happen. With a guitar sound like that I think I've made my point about improving my guitar recording technique, so in the coming week I'll be shifting my attention to the bass guitar. I may have reached that fourteen-song target, but I'm not done yet, so stay tuned...
I had a really productive day on Tuesday, followed by a lovely evening with Rebecca and Rob. I got home at just after 9 pm, read for a while and then went to bed - and woke up at three am when I turned over and shooting pains ran all the way up my back. The "cold" I had a couple of weeks ago seems to have turned out to be more viral, and by Wednesday teatime I couldn't move without one limb or another protesting. Not even a couple of those 12-hour ibuprofen capsules dulled the aches and pains, either. So despite the fact I was itching to try our the SM-57s I ended up not recording anything new until Friday night, when I began to feel a bit better (a Chinese takeaway from Wotton, washed down with a pint of lager might have had something to do with that - never underestimate the healing properties of Singapore fried rice.) Suitably refreshed, I fired up the gear and set about recording something. Nothing to challenging to start off with, just some relaxed meanderings on guitar that I called "five out of twelve" (and it's called that because the week 2 challenge on FAWM was to write something using the pentatonic scale).
Even though it's not the most together of my recordings, I think there's a noticeable improvement in the guitar sound. When you play anything through a Marshall stack, it's going to sound different, even at sensible volume levels, but I was more than satisfied with the results I got. I'd experimented with positioning the SM57's with one pointing down a speaker's axis and one set off-axis on another speaker. Twelve songs in the can!
After a decent night's sleep on Friday night and a large mug of coffee and a couple of croissants on Saturday morning, I was recovered enough to attempt something more challenging: a piece of music in the ridiculous time signature of 5/4, which means it rolls along with five beats in every bar. It's called "Read you five by five" and is unlikely to be danced to. I've gone back to this a couple of times since - I occasionally get a recording that doesn't really sound how I imagined it was going to, and I tweaked the eq, changed where the guitars were positioned in the stereo image, and even added another guitar part in an attempt to track down what I was looking for. I'm not sure I've got there yet; one to come back to later, perhaps.
After a cup of tea and a cookie, it was time to try another song. It was scary how fast the lyrics arrived once I'd sat down to write them - I think I had them written in about two minutes and not a single line got edited or crossed out. The song happened fast, too, and the whole thing took about ninety minutes from start to finish. I got a lovely crunchy rhythm guitar sound, although I kept it a bit low in the mix.
Just over half-way through the month, I'm one song off my target. Go me!
My attack of GAS has been completed. The courier delivered a large box at lunchtime, and after leaving the contents to warm up through the afternoon (they had obviously been sitting in a cold warehouse for quite some time) I've just set up my new microphones for recording through the Marshall stack. I'm taking an evening off from songwriting this evening but I had to give them a quick five-minute workout to test how they sounded in the studio. Even with a first stab at a mix of on-axis and off-axis placement I noticed a considerable improvement in tone - let's just use the word "crunchy" and leave it that for the moment. :-)
I'm up to eleven songs on FAWM now, so I think I can take a night off. On Sunday night I recorded another instrumental with the M3. I was back in Ableton pushing the reverb decay time ever higher for the lead line, and things ended up well past the fifteen second mark. It sounds pretty good if you ask me, and fully deserving of the song's title of "Mister Spacey".
Last night I began my week of focusing on guitar work with a bit of noodling, recorded using the DI approach I mentioned on Saturday, although I couldn't resist tweaking things a bit in Ableton to make things a little more interesting. The guitar sound is okay, but it doesn't give me that sense of volume or dynamism that I was listening for. What's worse is that the main thing that last night's recording shows is how rusty my guitar playing has become after a year of neglect...
Never mind; I will be practising a fair bit over this week and I hope I'll get a bit of my old dexterity back after a few days of playing. I need to harden up those calluses, too - it'll be bass playing week next week and that can be very painful on the fingertips if you push things too hard too soon!
It will no doubt come as no surprise to you by now to hear that I was back writing and recording songs again yesterday afternoon. The first one was prompted by watching the news and seeing footage of the snowstorm currently affecting most of the north-eastern United States. I suddenly got an impression of an old man holed up in a tower watching the blizzard envelop the town below while he drank cheap bourbon, listened to Leonard Cohen albums, and gradually lost touch with civilisation. It's played entirely on the M3 and it's called "snowbound".
I'm really pleased with it. The cold I came down with last week is still lingering, but I used this to my advantage by pushing my voice lower than I've ever tried singing before, and I mean a lot lower. My reaction listening to it right now is still "Whoa - is that really me?" And there may well be a minuscule hint of homage to a certain 78-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter in there...
After a short break I decided I'd try and keep up with my current rate of writing a song a day, and to mix things up a bit I fired up the FAWM website's Muse Tools page. Designed to help your creativity to flower on a slow day, this page provides a number of clever little programs which can automatically generate a plot for a song, randomise your music's structure, get a list of related words to work into your lyrics, or - and this is the one I picked - come up with a title for your next composition. If you have a go yourself, you'll see that the title choices you're given can be more than a little bit eccentric. The first one that I was given when I tried it was "BEES 40." As I'd mentioned that I had a song about bees in Thursday night's second song, I took this to be A Sign of some significance. What did it mean? I had no idea, but I shrugged and set to work. An hour or so later I'd come up with... well, I'd come up with something, but the main thing I'd come up with was the realisation that I probably shouldn't attempt to use the Muse Tools again.
Once I've worked my way through the enormous stack of ironing I have here, I'll be firing up the studio again. Ten songs in ten days? I can do this!
Accordion player and ace songwriter John Linnell was interviewed for New York food magazine Grub Street this week. The co-founder of my long-time favourite band They Might Be Giants reveals a liking for some truly evil-sounding coffee, assesses the relative merits of different breakfast cereals, and muses on how discriminating whales can be in their diet. It's an entertaining read, particularly if you're a huge TMBG fan like I am.
Now that the first week of FAWM is over, I've been thinking about what to do next week to keep my approach fresh and maintain the creative momentum I've built up. The songs I've come up with so far (see the rest of this month's blog below) have all been written on my Korg M3 synthesiser, and I've been very pleased with the results. But - how can I put this - the process feels too easy. I'm competent enough as a keyboard player to play a reasonable approximation of the melodies I hear in my head and end up with decent results, and the creative possibilities that the M3 offers are so overwhelmingly diverse that I can almost guarantee getting something workable out of it every time I sit down and play. Last night I was programming the thing with some new combis and came up with enough material to keep me occupied for the rest of the weekend, and my plan for today and tomorrow is to turn them into recorded pieces of music. I want to try and have ten songs done by the end of Sunday.
But I was listening to songs by other FAWMers last night, and Planet of the Backwards Rockstars by Tina Marshall really grabbed my attention. It's a first-rate pop song with witty lyrics and great singing, but it was the music that really hit home. It's full of amazing guitar work with great tone, and once I'd picked myself up off the floor I started thinking how I could get my stuff to sound as good as Tina's does. I quickly realised that for the last year or so I've been seriously neglecting the other instruments I play, particularly the guitar. The calluses on the fingers of my left hand have almost disappeared, I've done so little playing and I noticed when I recorded "Lower Sideband" a couple of days ago how rusty my technique has got. I abandoned take after take because I couldn't get my fingers to do what I expected them to. So, I've set myself a challenge: for the remaining weeks of FAWM, I'm going to ease back on the keyboard work and concentrate on my other instruments. Next week I'll start with the guitar, the week after I'll focus on my bass playing, and the week after that will be devoted to composing with the Chapman Stick.
The major drawback to this is that in comparison with the results I can get out of the M3, the other stuff I record ends up sounding distinctly thin. The M3 delivers a huge sound with impeccable production values and instruments panned all the way across the stereo image with three-band EQ on each voice to tweak their presence in the mix before it's even left the synth. My guitar playing? Not so much. I may have more guitar effects pedals than you could shake a stick at and I own several guitars, but leaving aside any deficiencies I might have as a guitar player, the sound I record always leaves me a bit disappointed. I'm pretty sure that this is because I always record directly into the 32-track rather than miking up amps and getting some air moving in the real world. Using DI saves hassle and time and it also stops me annoying the neighbours, but somehow my playing never sounds as good as it does when I throw it through my old Marshall stack. There's something profoundly satisfying about getting the molecules in the room a bit agitated, and that feeling somehow carries over into the recorded sound.
So here's the underlying motivation behind this sudden change of approach: I want to teach myself how to record different instruments in a live studio, and get a recorded guitar tone I can be happy with. This isn't a trivial task by any means; the practice of miking amps - where you put microphones, how many you use, what make of mic you select - is something I have no experience of whatsoever, and it is a world of mysterious and arcane knowledge. Once I realised the scale of what I'd be letting myself in for, I decided I needed to put myself under sufficient pressure to stop me bottling out. The best way I could think of for raising the stakes is (what a surprise) to invest in some kit devoted to the technique. This morning therefore saw me succumbing to this year's Gear Acquisition Syndrome spree for FAWM and I've ordered a pair of Shure SM57 mics complete with stands and leads from my regular supplier, DV247. Actually, on a more mundane level I realised a couple of years ago that I needed a few decent microphones for recording, so yesterday's decision just spurred me into finally making the leap...
The SM57 is almost the same as the SM58 I already own, but although the capsule inside it (the bit that actually turns moving air into electrical current) is the same, it has no pop shield on the top (the SM58 has that distinctive silver ball on the end) and this means you can place it just that teensy little bit closer to the sound source. This, I am led to believe by those who know about such things, can have a huge influence on the results that you get.
Using two mics appears to be the standard approach for amp miking (hence the splurge), but I'll do some experimenting to see what the results are like with one as well. The courier's delivering them on Tuesday, so I'll spend Monday night recording guitar using DI and this will give me a reference to contrast the results with. It should be an interesting week, and this is exactly what I need - for me FAWM is as much about learning how to make music better as it is about getting some songs written, and I feel suitably inspired all over again. Which was, of course, the whole idea.
My cold is finally going away, I think. Nevertheless, I was very glad to get home tonight. It seems like it's been a long week, as if I haven't really stopped to catch a breath since last Sunday. So this weekend I don't intend to leave the house. I have lots of coffee, croissants, and a packet of cookies. I hope to do some reading, write several songs, watch some movies, drink some wine, and rather more prosaically, work my way through the alarmingly large pile of ironing that I've let build up in the dining room. I live *such* a rock and roll lifestyle...
I've pretty much dropped off the map in the evenings this week, so if you've tried to contact me and failed, please accept my apologies. I've had the curtains drawn, my headphones on, and the music turned up (though not too much - I need my ears to stay in shape for the rest of the month.) The reason, of course, is that I've been bitten by the songwriting bug in a big way. After just seven days of February Album Writing Month I uploaded my seventh song last night. It's a bit different for me - I wanted to write something with the spirit (if not the style) of Tom Lehrer or Flanders and Swann, so it's just a one piano track and a single vocal take. I might tidy up the scrappy bits later on, but even as it stands it's not a complete trainwreck, in my humble but hugely biased opinion. It's called "The Opposite of Blocked."
And the rest of this week's efforts? Sunday's was recorded before my cold started to affect my voice too badly, although you can hear it going in places; nevertheless, I'm rather pleased with it. It's called Hipstergeddon and features a nifty keyboard break by yours truly.
After I recorded Sunday's song I'd pretty much blown out my voice, so on Monday night I switched back to doing instrumentals.
This one started off with a combi I programmed into the M3. After playing with this for a while I found myself wondering what it would sound like given the John Barry treatment, with a sixties tremelo guitar sound and some mandolins, and after that it was plain sailing. Listening to it now I'd like to re-do it using the Telecaster instead of my main guitar to get more of a twang, and I'd add a third verse with even more orchestration to make it cinematic in scope (I know just the sounds I want to use) but that will have to wait until February's over. I have absolutely no idea why it's called "Lower Sideband", but the phrase just popped into my head when I had to come up with a filename, so that's the name it's got.
Tuesday's track was another instrumental written after finding a song by fellow FAWMer spankypoppagasket called Beyond the Karman Line. That's the line above which you're deemed to officially be in Outer Space, so that got me thinking about astronautics, and Harry George Armstrong, who discovered that if you get past the 12 mile mark, the atmospheric pressure drops so low that the water in your saliva or in the mucus lining your lungs will boil at body temperature. When NASA were developing space suits in the 1960s, test subject Jim LeBlanc survived rapid decompression to hard vacuum in a simulator accident many years ago where he described the last sensation he felt before losing consciousness as being his saliva boiling on his tongue... Tuesday's track is therefore called "Beyond the Armstrong Limit".
This is the first song this year where I've used Ableton for sound processing as well as simple DAW mixing, and I found myself ramping up the delay time for the reverb on the lead synth line to quite ludicrous levels; I think it's ended up at around the 14 second mark, which you'd be hard-pressed to achieve in a physical space. But I reckon I could even push it further, and kick the beat repeat processing on it up a notch as well - it's still a tad too subtle, I reckon.
Listening to all the tracks in sequence I realise that I used the same fading-off-into-reverb finish that I'd used on the previous track, but both tracks suit the technique, so it's staying.
By Wednesday my voice was starting to come back, but I thought I'd take a night off and make sure it recovered fully. "I'll just write down a few lines of lyrics to kick things off tomorrow," I found myself thinking. The problem was that once I'd started, I couldn't stop. In fact, I was still coming up with more words in the bath, and even more while I was lying in bed. I learned in previous years to always have a pen and paper in reach, so I didn't lose anything, but I decided to sleep on things before trying to record anything. I'm glad I did; you've already heard one of the results; "The Opposite of Blocked" is what I put together with the verses that were written in a different metre. The song I'd set out to write in the first place was called "More Torque Than Before". Yet again it's another synth-heavy composition, and this year's first stab at multitracked vocals. usually I have to slide syllables all over the place afterwards to get the vocals to line up, but this track needed relatively little tweaking in Ableton. I was right on top of the mic, so the main thing I had to tweak were the plosives, but by midnight last night I'd got song 6 and song 7 uploaded and out there in the world for people to listen to.
So I've written seven songs in seven days, which is twice the workrate I need to finish FAWM successfully and I think I may even try to challenge last year's grand total of 20 songs. I was feeling rather pleased with myself about all this, but then at lunchtime Mitch Benn tweeted what he's going to be doing for Comic Relief's Red Nose Day next month, and he's not just raised the bar, he's kicked it into the stratosphere: he'll be recording an entire album in just 24 hours. I'm sponsoring him for this and buying a copy of the results, because after my experiences with FAWM I can appreciate a little of what a gloriously heroic and insane thing this is to attempt.
Good luck, Mitch!
Well, I was right about coming down with a cold. Yesterday was a complete bust and I spent most of it under the duvet, fast asleep. I think I finally surfaced at about two in the afternoon. This morning I still felt pretty rough and I'd quite happily have stayed under the duvet once again, but I had to drag myself out of bed and go and do some shopping. And what a pleasant morning it turned out to be: as I drove over to Dursley the sun was shining and I saw a buzzard wheeling overhead in a cloudless sky. Everybody seemed to be out walking their dogs, and I don't blame them, because the sunlight felt really good.
Once I'd got back home, ground some coffee and eaten a couple of croissants for breakfast, I felt much better. So it was time to fire up the studio and get FAWM under way once again. This month's first track saw me shutting the Zoom recorder in the garage so I could set the scene, like so:
The track's called "Scorchio". I was going for a Jeff Beck / Jan Hammer vibe on this one, and I think it turned out pretty well for a couple of hours' work.
After a break for a cup of tea and a biscuit, I noticed on the FAWM forum that they'd organised a songskirmish for 4pm. I knew about them from previous years doing FAWM, but I'd never had a go - the idea is that someone nominates a topic and everyone who takes part has 60 minutes to come up with a song that fits the title. Four o'clock came round and the title announced was "welcome the pain." I can do that, I thought to myself, and sixty minutes later I'd uploaded a finished song to the site...
I was really pleased with it, too. So from getting zip done yesterday, I'm a song ahead after two days. Excellent!