They Might Be Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: February 2015

February saw me taking part in my seventh FAWM - February Album Writing Month. Dare I say it, the quality of what I recorded this year was noticeably improved on previous years and I came up with one or two things that I'm rather proud of. I bought a new microphone to record my singing and promptly caught a cold that reduced my voice to a feeble croak. Such is life; I did turn in a couple of passable Tom Waits-style pieces as a result.

WINTRY

It's snowing outside right now. Not a lot, and it's not settling on the ground, but the conservatory roof is covered. Winter isn't finished yet, it seems - and neither is my cold from last week. I'm still full of it, and I'm now experiencing the delights of what the pharmaceutical industry describes as congested sinuses. Ugh. Breakfast this morning was a mug of Lemsip, although I'm taking a break just now to fortify myself with coffee. My voice is still little more than a croak, so when I return to FAWMing later today I'll be recording another instrumental. After a busy weekend I'm back on target, with twelve songs released to my profile (and another collaboration is in progress, too).

The output quality of my songs seems to have improved; to put it more plainly so far this year I haven't recorded anything that I feel embarrassed to listen to a couple of days later. A lot of that is down to the fact that I've worked on a lot of collaborations this year - far more than I ever did in the past - and I had to really push myself to make sure that what I did was worthy of their efforts. But what an eclectic mix of music I've helped to produce this time around: a song in the style of Tom Waits accompanied by a cat, something that sounds like ZZ Top singing about guitar effects pedals, weird jazz in 9/8, and er, a mambo.

Musically, anything goes (as you can tell). FAWM is the sort of place where the weird kids get to to hang out, to be themselves, and to finally get recognition. FAWM teaches the weird kids that what they do isn't just something to be tolerated, it's something worthy of respect; it has value. And I absolutely count myself as one of those weird kids. When I first discovered FAWM, it was like finding a new home, because FAWM is where I Fit In. Friends who have joined in have had the same reaction. Chatting to Mel on Skype as we planned our FAWM endeavours this year, the theme of being weird, of knowing that what we are is not what "normal" people are has been a recurring subject. So when I heard Graham Moore's Academy Award acceptance speech this morning (he won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for "The Imitation Game") I had to smile.

"When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now I'm standing here and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she's weird or she's different or she doesn't fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird, stay different. And then when it's your turn and you're standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along."

Here's to the weird kids. Stay weird. Stay different.

STILL BUSY

And here we are a Saturday later. It's been a long week. I didn't seem to have any spare time at all and there was a lot going on.

On Monday night I went to a talk at UWE that had been organised by the IET. It was an account of the development history of the TSR2, given by Brian Mann CEng FIET, who had worked on the development of the flight simulators for the aircraft. It was fascinating - and fifty years on, the identity of the person in the Labour government who made the decision to terminate the programme is still a mystery.

Not having enough time wasn't the reason I decided to drop Coursera's "Introduction to Ableton Live" course this week, though. The technical solutions in place for running a course with more than 30,000 students just weren't up to the task. When you submit your work for peer review, you're asked to review the work of five other students; of the five links I was given, two actually downloaded the .als file I was supposed to be looking at. The third took me to an .als file stored on a cloud storge website that had all its media files missing (although I was able to reconstruct them) but the fourth pointed me at my own dashboard web page for Blend, the file sharing site that is being used for the course. The fifth spat out a "Something has gone wrong!" page on the same site.

So I had the following problems:

  • The assessment links we're given to work on are not checked at all before they're assigned.
  • The web page used to enter assessment results has absolutely no error reporting function, and assumes that we will always be able to access the links we're given.
  • The web form can't be submitted unless you enter values in to the four marking fields on the form, but there is no value for "I can't hear anything" or "the file does not exist".
  • I posted several times in the forums asking what I should do, but got no formal response.

As a result, I couldn't complete my assessment tasks. And that meant I couldn't get a mark for them. I felt frustrated and cheated and annoyed. I know not everyone is interested in UI design, or programme testing, but it needs doing. And when you run a course like this, especially one that has already been run more than once, problems as fundamental as these just should not crop up. They certainly shouldn't be allowed to continue without a response.

As a result, I've dropped the course. I'm not going to waste any more time on it.

By comparison, the "Introduction to Music Production" course is much more organised and I've had no problems at all completing the assessment forms that are being used there. I'm still working on that one and I'm enjoying it - and learning things that I didn't already know, which is, after all, the reason why I'm taking the course in the first place.

FIGHTING THE LURGI

Last year when I did FAWM, I managed to make it to the end of the month without coming down with my traditional cold, but this year it was back to the old ways. I felt under the weather on Monday, croaky on Tuesday, and distinctly rough on Wednesday. I was lecturing on Tuesday and Wednesday, too, and by the end of my last talk on Wednesday my voice had been reduced to a feeble croak. I was at home on Thursday and Friday and I got through both days mainly thanks to mugs of Lemsip and honey. Today my voice is still in pretty much the same state, and I don't think I'll be doing too much singing. That means that I'm off target on FAWM, and two songs adrift of where I should be today. I need to work on some collabs and record some instrumentals!

LOTS DONE, LOTS TO DO

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday morning and I have a stack of things to do today. I need to finish off the PowerPoint presentation I started yesterday, get my song count back on target for FAWM, catch up on work for the two MOOCs I'm doing at Berklee, sort the huge pile of laundry upstairs, and put it through the washing machine. And all this because I went out for a couple of evenings this week, rather than sitting in front of a computer until midnight (which is more my style).

On Wednesday I went to see Alex Garland's new film Ex Machina. It turned out to be a careful and thoughtful examination of the Turing Test and what the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) might mean for humanity. The score, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, is one of the finest I've heard in the last ten years and it contributes significantly to the tone of the film. I will be buying the soundtrack album when it's released in April. I'll be mulling over the film for quite a while, too. Without resorting to spoilers, I like the gradual reveal of how advanced an AI the central character Ava is and the film resonated strongly for me with the issues raised by Nick Bostrom in his book Superintelligence; I was thinking "oh shit" way before it occurred to any of the characters to do so. Be warned, though: there is quite a bit - well, okay, rather a lot of totally gratuitous female nudity in the last fifteen minutes.

On Thursday night I was back at the Thunderbolt in Totterdown for another round of Metal 2 The Masses; another four bands were there to compete for a shot at performing at the heavy metal Bloodstock festival this summer. I was there to support local band Franklin Mint, who you may remember I first saw at last year's Midsummer Metal gig at The Fleece. Nick, Jim, Mark and Al were on fine form and there was a decent-sized audience for them to play to. The crowd wasn't your typical denim and leather crowd either - there were folks in dreads and there was a truly awe-inspiring amount of plaid to be seen. As for the other bands, I'd seen Downfall at Midsummer Metal, but Kinasis and Nycosia were new to me. Phil from Brocken Spectre told me to watch out for Nycosia, who like him hail from Hereford. They're very young and just starting out so their set had a few covers in it, but they had an interesting sound and when I found out that bassist Theo built the six-string bass he was playing himself, I was very impressed. Kinasis were full-on metalheads with distinct grindcore leanings. They showed huge amounts of energy and presence on stage, and it was obvious pretty much from the first four bars of their first song that they were going to get through to the semifinals. They're a shoe-in for the Bloodstock crowd.

I'm delighted to report that Franklin Mint got through too. Hip hip hooray!

PLAYING CATCH-UP

So as a result of all this excitement, I'm behind on FAWM. I got one just song written during the week, but it was a good one (he said, modestly). Writing it was a distinctly odd experience, because it was one of those pieces that seemed to write itself. In fact, it felt more like I was discovering something that already existed rather than creating something new. When I play something back and find myself thinking "how did I write that?" I know I've done a decent job. The song is called Dark Matter:

I started off with the drum pattern. I've really come to love the samples in Toontrack's Metal Machine expansion pack, so that's what I was using. And yet I'm also a sucker for subtle sidestick playing, and I found a pattern in one of their "Songwriters" packs which really appealed to me. So I set it playing in Live, fired up the Push, and started noodling around with a synth pad to see what would fit. I arrived at the chord progression almost immediately, and thought to myself, "Oooh, I have to use this."

I knew I had to record it instantly before I forgot it, and once I'd done that I could hear a bassline that would fit with it, so I played that on the Push too. By this time it was eleven thirty at night so I went to bed, but evidently my subconscious refused to knock off for the night and at half past two in the morning I woke up with Carl Sagan's voice ringing in my head: "We're picking up strange signals," he was saying. I switched on the light, grabbed a pen and paper and wrote the first verse down on the spot. Note that if you're doing FAWM, always have a pen and paper handy because if you're lucky this sort of thing will happen to you regularly. Don't tell yourself that you'll remember it the next morning, because you won't.

To complete the music I used the Jackson for the main guitar part. The strings on it had nearly given up, so I played free and easy with plenty of use of the whammy bar (and the following day the Jackson got a wipe down, a polish, and fresh set of Super Slinkys). For the middle section it was back to the Push; the Ibanez RG-9 got called in to provide some low-end grunt. And then it was time to finish off the lyrics and record the vocals.

I needed words that reflected Carl's deep sense of wonder, yet showed his scientific approach to everything. And of course, there are some tropes that had to be included, such as his use of the word "billions" - but not "billions and billions," because that wasn't Sagan at all, but actually Johnny Carson pretending to be Sagan! I wanted the vocals to be delivered in something that approximated Carl's distinctive manner of speaking, and at the same time do him justice. I listened to some of his most famous sayings again to make sure I knew what I was trying to accomplish (why, yes, of course I have Carl Sagan samples on my computer; doesn't everybody?) and then just went for it. I treated the result so that it sounded like it had been recorded off the TV with a bit of mystical sixty-second reverb thrown in for good measure. Though I say it myself, I think my version of Carl is closer than Johnny Carson's. In fact, quite a few people seemed to think that it really was Carl, and that pleased me a great deal.

Mission accomplished!

ROLLING AGAIN

The folks at Ableton were able to identify my video rendering problem. Once I set the location of the final rendered video to a different hard drive to the one all the source video was stored on, it worked without a hitch. They were able to establish that I was getting disk errors, because Ableton did a very clever thing with Live and built a reporting tool into it that creates a status report on the system it's being used with. Why don't more software packages do this? It would save so much time going through the diagnostic process.

SOFTWARE HELL

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours putting together my homework for the Berklee course on audio production that I'm doing on Coursera. I enjoyed doing it, even though I don't really enjoy being in front of a camera; I'd much rather be behind it. Once I'd filmed all my material and taken the photos I wanted to use, I put the whole thing together in Ableton Live. By the middle of the afternoon I'd got things pretty much how I wanted. I'd got all the sound levels normalised, I'd equalised the sound to get rid of the annoying hiss from the camera's tiny microphone, and the content was as close as it was going to get to being complete. So I selected the master track, saved everything, hit the "export audio/video" button, and sat back...

...and almost immediately sat up again, after Ableton exported a .WAV file and then returned me to my project.

No video.

I spent the next 45 minutes changing encoding parameters, installing video codec packages, searching on Ableton's forums, trawling the web, and swearing. The closest I got to success was when I momentarily saw a window saying "Exporting video - Beginning pass 1" but as soon as the progress bar appeared it vanished. No video. Eventually I realised I wasn't going to get anywhere so I emailed Ableton support in Germany and turned to the other video editing software I have, Cyberlink's "Power Director 9." It had been a long time since I used it; it was two years ago, when I made this. I soon remembered why I'd steered clear of using the program since then. Even on my super-fast studio machine, it was hideously slow to play video without rendering files every three seconds. The workflow concept stinks (for example, when you're editing the closing scene it doesn't really help matters that the cursor would jump right back to the beginning of the movie every time the play head got to the end). If I edited the sound level on a video clip, Power Director would immediately forget about playing sound on any other clip as well unless I quit the program and reloaded the project. I remembered my initial impression of the software: it's a series of adverts for extra functionality and upgrades that's been wrapped around some shonky, second-rate program that hasn't been quality checked, user tested, or finished. And just to top off the day, every time I rendered the complete video, the program would save the file and then promptly crash.

In fact Power Director crashed on me eleven times in the next five hours. There was a lot more swearing than there had been using Live. In the end, putting the video together using Cyberlink's software took twice as long as it had taken me to both shoot the video and edit it in Ableton. By the time I'd finished it was nine o'clock at night and I'd burned through my whole day without starting on any new FAWM music. I was tired, stressed out and frustrated. Tomorrow I'm going to order a different video editing package. I don't want to go through a day like yesterday again in a hurry. Using software should not be an ordeal.

OOH, SHINY

All that messing about yesterday meant that I wasn't able to give my new microphone anything more than the most cursory trial run...

Gold Dot Towards You

It's a Røde NT1-A and I bought it after the professor on the audio production course that I'm doing said "you need a large-diaphragm condenser microphone" in a distinctly unequivocal fashion. I wasn't going to argue - I've been hankering after one for a while. It's on sale at the moment in a bundle deal that includes a cable, pop shield and shock mount, and I found it at a silly price online.

My first impression is that it works very well but it's quite a change from the dynamic microphones I've been using for the last ten years. I could hear the difference as soon as I listened to its output over headphones. It's much more sensitive to room noises than the Shure SM57s and 58 I've been recording with up to now. It looks the part too, doesn't it? Today I'm going to be putting it through its paces as I catch up on the time I lost yesterday.

But first of all, it's time for coffee while I listen to Oscar Peterson's Big 4 on the stereo and think about what I'm going to write today...

TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK

It's Wednesday lunchtime. I'm four days into FAWM and I'm on schedule, with two songs under my belt. I've been making heavy use of my new guitars so far, and both songs have ended up very much in metal territory. But my synth-nerd tendencies are still there, especially after I got myself the VST bundle from Tweakbench (a bargain for $5) and started playing with their chiptunes synth modules, Toad and Peach. The Nintendo sounds inspired me to pick a title for track #1 from my old favourite, the Videogame Name Generator, and when it spat out First-Person Wizard Groove I had a really good idea of what to do. Throw in some EZDrummer2 drum patterns played by Tomas Haake of Meshuggah, and you have a heady mix:

Those drums have a weird rhythm, although I've been told that most of Tomas's patterns are actually in 4/4. It took me most of Sunday afternoon to get the riff down on the 9-string (it's synched with the kick drum) and I was very pleased when I could play the pattern through without messing it up. I did have to do some editing on the bridge, though; I just didn't have time to obsessively rehearse the whole thing because this is FAWM, and the mantra here is "get it done"...

In past years it's taken me three or four songs before I get into the flow of FAWM but this year for some reason I hit the ground running. The sound and the separation I got in the track is much better than I usually manage. The bass and the guitar are nice and clear. When I'd finished the track and played it back, I sat there wondering how on Earth I'd managed to produce it.

Hey, this is great, I though to myself. I've figured out how to get a good sound at last.

Er - no.

When I'd finished song #2 I was really disappointed with it. Both writing and recording it had been much harder. I'd set out to duplicate things from track #1 and get the same clarity and separation; I used the same instruments and processing, but the results sound - sadly - more like my usual efforts. I went back and changed things, and even ended up taking the eq off the Jackson guitar entirely, but I just couldn't get it to pop in the same way. So I uploaded the mp3 to the FAWM website and started thinking about the next song instead.

I should say songs - I have two collaborations I'm working on right now and I also need to kick off the "free for all" exquisite corpse for which I'm going to be acting as stitcher. What's an exquisite corpse? It's a collaborative piece in which each participant is sent the last ten seconds of the previous contributor's piece of music. They must then attempt to continue the theme from that section. All the pieces are then sent to the stitcher (that's me) so that they can be joined together. The stitcher's job is to make sure that the end result runs together smoothly. In theory, at least. The results are frequently amazing.

BACK TO SCHOOL

Just to make life more difficult for myself, I've also started as a student on two Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCS) this week. I'm taking two courses run by the Berklee College of Music over at Coursera. I've been watching videos, posting on the site's forums, and taking copious notes.

Introduction to Ableton Live is all about the basics of Ableton's Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). I've used the software for several years now, so a lot of the content is stuff I'm familiar with, but even so I'm still finding myself muttering "I didn't know you could do that" on a regular basis. Which is, of course, exactly why I signed up for the course. Having an Ableton Push is going to be handy for this one, too.

I signed up for Introduction to Music Production for the same reason. It's a longer course and there's plenty to chew on. This course is also considerably more technical; it starts with the basic physics of the propagation of sound, which I thought I knew about, but it turns out I didn't, and moves on from there. Just knowing that sound travels at roughly a foot per millisecond explains a lot. I'm really pleased I'm taking this one.

OFF WE GO AGAIN

It's Sunday morning, I've just finished my coffee and I'm updating the blog before I head into the studio to start work on the month's first song. Because today sees the start of February Album Writing Month (FAWM) once again. In the next 28 days, my goal is to write 14 songs - an album's worth - and then let them out into the world to see if people like them or not.

Let's be clear, though. FAWM is not a competition; instead it's a fun, supportive workshop where we learn by receiving feedback and constructive criticism from other songwriters. It doesn't matter what your skills are like in producing a song, either. Although there are some FAWMers who consistently deliver finished work that could easily get played on the radio, others just write lyrics. They're all entering into the spirit of things, and most importantly they're all having fun taking part.

So why is FAWM such a good thing? Having a schedule which requires you to come up with another song every two days can have an incredible effect on your creativity. And whatever creative field you work in, you aren't going to get any better at what you do unless you keep doing it. Over and over again. It's hard when you start, because the results you come up with aren't as good as what you're reaching for - mine certainly weren't. The first year I did FAWM I was so depressed by how poor the first song I recorded was that I never got around to writing a second one. Not reaching your goals straight away is why a lot of people give up, as Ira Glass explains:

I didn't give up for long. FAWM is such a friendly fun environment that I came back the following year, and got a few more songs written. In 2011 I reached the target for the first time - in fact, I wrote 15 songs. And I've reached my songwriting goals every year since then. My output has skyrocketed in both quantity and quality. In the seven years since I started doing FAWM in 2009 I've written hundreds of songs. They would never have been written if it wasn't for FAWM's existence. In the previous seven years I'd produced less than half a dozen pieces of music.

You might not have ever considered yourself as a songwriter or a musician. But if you're at all creative you should still take part. Doing FAWM will surprise you. You'll be amazed by what you produce. Listening to some of my recent songs I have a hard time accepting that it was me that wrote them, as they're actually pretty good. To get to that point I had to do what Ira is talking about in that clip: I had to write a lot of songs that weren't as good as I wanted them to be. I kept going because the folk who do FAWM know what it's like to struggle, and they provide encouragement and support. Each year, we all get better at what we do. And in the process, the creative act becomes a little bit easier. With every new song that comes into being, there's less struggle and more fun. It's an addictive process. I'll be blogging about different aspects of it this month. I hope you find the results interesting and entertaining.