Oh, hello British Summertime. Only my iPhone, my alarm clock and my car are smart enough to figure the change out for themselves (the car's clock uses GPS, which makes it the most accurate timekeeping device I have) so I've been round the house this morning setting the cooker, the microwave, clocks, phones, cameras, video game systems, and musical equipment an hour forwards and I'm still noticing things I've missed. As usual, my feed.xml file will have to stay on GMT as the Internet doesn't do BST.
But for once the arrival of something with the word "summer" in its name has lived up to expectations and outside it's warm and sunny, with a lovely blue sky and a temperature of 17°C. With that, it won't get dark outside until about 8 o'clock tonight and suddenly it feels like summer might actually be on the way after all. As the weather warms up and the days get longer all the farms in the area have been very busy this week. I think I'm going to have to wash the car later, as everywhere I drove yesterday I seemed to be behind a very muddy tractor.
Sharp-eyed Texans Steve Douglass and Dean Muskett spotted something flying high over Amarillo this month that they didn't recognise, and from the photographs they took I'm not surprised. From the descriptions of the observers, it was a big aircraft, and it was flying in formation at high altitude with two escorts. The logical assumption therefore is that this is a military aircraft. But it's a very unusual shape for a conventional aircraft; it's pretty much a flying triangle.
As soon as those words popped into my head I had a bit of an "aha" moment, because since the 1980s flying triangles have been a very popular category of UFO sighting around the world. The most notorious sightings, which occurred in Belgium at the beginning of the 1990s, turned out to be a hoax, but there have been dozens and dozens of reports of the things. They've even been reported in the UK. Secret military aircraft have a long and venerable history of creating UFO reports, and it looks like we might be about to discover another vehicle in that category. Funny how the USAF just 'happened' to let a new military plane out of the bag during heightened tensions with Russia, eh? I'm sure it's just a coincidence...
After all the discussion of solar flares on Thursday, the Sun came up with a pretty decent showing yesterday. An X1 flare started to erupt at about 17:35 yesterday evening. I don't know if it will result in any auroral displays here like the X4.9 flare that happened on the 25th February. That produced some amazing northern lights two days later, so it'll be worth keeping an eye out for the next couple of days. But rest assured that we won't be being blasted back into the dark ages as a result, no matter what Reuters would have you believe.
I had a lovely breakfast listening to a new live recording of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy on Radio 4 this morning. Most of the original cast, some new gags, and a studio audience joining in. Great fun.
Darn. I didn't manage to get a Kate Bush ticket. They sold out in less than 15 minutes.
I just spent a couple of hours writing tonight's blog only for another program to trigger a BSOD on my system and I lost the lot. Thank you so much, iTunes. I said on Tuesday that I had a bunch of stuff to get through; let's try again, shall we?
It's been a fascinating week for space science. The most bizarre discovery this week has to do with a humble asteroid that goes by the name of Chariklo. This 250 km-wide lump of rock happened to pass in front of a star and block out its light (an event known as an occultation) recently, and astronomers across South America were ready to take measurements. They noticed that just before the asteroid crossed in front of the star, the star's light dipped, twice. Then there were two more dips after the occultation. The conclusion is that despite Chariklo being so small that you could overcome its gravity and reach escape velocity with a decent sports car, it had managed to hold on to a dense double ring system. The rings are most likely formed from a collision with another lump of rock, and they sit close in to the asteroid. I bet they look amazing from the surface.
The solar system got a little bit bigger, as the discovery of another plutoid or dwarf planet was announced. The new discovery has been designated as 2012 VP113, and its initials rather predictably ensured that it's become known by the nickname "Biden". It is currently 80 times as far away from the Sun as the Earth is (a measure of distance called an Astronomical Unit or AU). That's a looooong way out - by comparison, at the furthest point in its orbit Pluto is 48 AU from the Sun. And 80 AU is close in for this minor planet, as it has a wildly eccentric orbit that takes it out to 452 AU from the Sun, or 42 billion miles. That's far enough out to place it not in the Kuiper Belt, like Pluto and its companions, but in the inner reaches of the Oort Cloud.
Like its fellow denizen of the outer reaches of our system Sedna, 2012 VP113 veers in from the darkness, then flies out again - and that has astronomers intrigued, because neither dwarf planet could have formed in that sort of orbit. Planets are thought to have formed in the accretion disk of the infant Sun as the gravity of denser clumps of material gradually gathered in enough gas and dust to make a world. This means that planets tend to form in circular orbits. And where Sedna and 2012 VP113 live there are no big planets to upset things, so they should have stayed in those orbits. Instead, both Sedna and 2012 VP113 have very elliptical orbits. Something nudged them into those orbits, and that something might be the fabled Planet X that Clyde Tombaugh was actually looking for when he discovered Pluto back in 1930. People have been looking long and hard for Planet X, and nothing has shown up yet - but the discovery of 2012 VP113 will certainly keep the search alive for a while longer.
So yes, it's been a great week for space science.
Unfortunately, it's not been a great week for reporting space science. Last week the Forbes website ran a hyperbolic story about a recent solar flare which, they claimed, could have blasted us back to the dark ages. The story also cropped up on the Daily Mail and the Washington Examiner websites, amongst others. It discussed how, on July 23rd 2012, the Earth narrowly missed being struck by a coronal mass ejection that could have wiped out all our communications systems.
Except that's not what happened.
Looking at solar activity records available online, the biggest flare that occurred back then was a measly little C2.0. Digging a little deeper, the story seems to have originated over at Reuters, but while the text of that report repeats the July 23rd date, the image at the top of the page shows an M5.3 flare that happened just shy of three weeks earlier, on July 4th. It takes between one and five days for a CME to reach Earth, so it's much too old to be the reason for the Reuters story. Furthermore, while M class flares are bigger, the M stands for "moderate" and we get hit by the results of M-class flares on a regular basis. I can't recall one blasting us back into the dark ages, can you?
But it wasn't the fact that the story was complete bollocks that wound me up. Oh no. The reason I got so annoyed by the incompetence of the reporting is because it invoked the Carrington Event, a solar flare that happened in 1859 that has become the default boogeyman for any journalist wanting to write impressive-sounding stories about space weather without even remotely understanding what the words they're using actually mean. The Carrington Event was a spectacular occurrence, a soft-x-ray event which was greater than X10 in size. I've blogged about the Carrington Event before, usually in the context of inaccurate science reporting. And when I got annoyed about this sort of thing a couple of years ago I put together more information than you are ever likely to need about the relative sizes of solar flare classes. Look at those figures and it becomes clear that the July 23rd 2012 event was a piffling little thing by comparison. In no way could it have crisped the Earth if it had hit us. This sort of journalism might be par for the course over at the Daily Mail but frankly, I expect better of Reuters.
NASA are busy developing the latest generation of spacesuits. They've moved on somewhat from the Buzz Lightyear homage that was the Z-1 and the design of the Z-2 is currently being finalised. The public is being asked to choose which of three styles should be used for the suit's outer shell and so I've put my vote in for the "technology" version. Its blue, luminescent markings make it look remarkably TRON-like. A lot of other people seem rather taken with it too, as it's currently in the lead with 65% of all votes cast. This suit won't fly in space, which is a shame, but if this is a sign of things to come I like the direction NASA is going.
I made it back home by half past ten on Sunday night. It wasn't a particularly quick journey home, as there were lots of stretches of roadworks, but traffic wasn't that heavy and the driving position in the car is comfortable enough. I was getting 44 mpg on the trip, which I'm pretty pleased about considering the temperature was barely above freezing for the last half of the journey.
Half an hour after I got home on Sunday, I was in bed. I've yet to recover from the weekend, I think. And although I was in bed by half past nine last night, I didn't sleep particularly well; this is beginning to be a bit of a problem for me. I remember the good old days when I could go to bed at ten and sleep solidly for twelve hours without any difficulty at all. These days I've usually woken up again after no more than three hours. It's time to go and have a word with the doctor and see what we can come up with. In the meantime I think'll be having another early night tonight. I've got other stuff to blog about but I'm not in a fit state to do it justice, so we'll leave that for another day.
I'm at my Dad's after a lovely day visiting my sister Annabelle and her family yesterday. I don't hang out with them often enough. I had a great time chatting and generally catching up with things (which involved drinking copious amounts of tea) and in the evening I finally got to see the first Hobbit movie, which I really enjoyed.
Once I got back to the bungalow today, I was yawning my head off and my nose was running - signs that I was absolutely knackered. I was already pretty wiped out by the time I got here on Friday night, to the point that I couldn't figure out that the reason the car's remote locking wouldn't work was because I hadn't fully closed the tailgate. In my defence I have to say I'd driven the best part of 300 miles and it was going up for one o'clock in the morning. Having several glasses of wine during yesterday evening meant that I slept fairly well on their sofabed, but their restorative effects were rather offset by the hangover I discovered I'd got this morning when the dogs woke me up at quarter to six. I'd originally planned to go off and take some photos somewhere this afternoon but I really don't feel up to doing anything at all at the moment. I might not be shivering but I feel cold and outside it's been raining off and on for the last few hours. So the order of play this afternoon is a quick snooze, followed by a bath, followed by a nap. That should sort me out, I think.
It was the vernal equinox yesterday afternoon, and now that the Sun has passed the celestial equator and it's officially spring, the Met Office are forecasting snow "to quite low levels" for Wales and the West Country and a hard frost on Sunday night. Sounds about right. As for me, I am heading off to see my father in East Anglia for the weekend. It'll be my first long drive in the Juke so I should have a much better idea of the car by the time I get to where I'm going.
The car already knows my destination. Nissan have partnered with Google to provide something called Google Send To Car, which does exactly what it sounds like: you set your destination on your PC with Google Maps, then click on More | Send To Car and (provided you've set up the appropriate data accounts) when you next pair your phone with the car and select the "update" button on the dash, the new destination is loaded in to your destination list.
There was one wrinkle: I had to revert to the "Classic" Google Maps interface to do this - the appropriate commands don't appear yet on the redesign. But the technology is impressive and operates seamlessly. I'm impressed.
This week's announcement that the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole had detected strong evidence of cosmic inflation that occurred a tiny moment after the Big Bang left me sitting at my desk with a goofy grin on my face. MIT's Alan Guth famously wrote "SPECTACULAR REALIZATION" on his notes when the concept of inflation occurred to him and the latest findings, while they'll need to be confirmed by other observational teams, look like vindicating his theory in an equally spectacular fashion. And even if you don't do physics, just watch the beautiful moment where Stanford's Professor Andrei Linde is told by one of his team that BICEP2 has delivered a 5-sigma result which means that the theory he developed with Guth has been proven. And if Linde is right, this has truly awe-inspiring implications for the universe we live in - because it means that the universe is just part of an infinitely larger, continuously expanding multiverse. This week, one of the staple conceits of science fiction changed from being a cool concept to "that's just how it is."
And that has blown my tiny little mind.
My view of the world as I travel to and from work has changed. Yesterday, it looked like this:
but as of this evening, my view through the windscreen looks like this:
Today I said goodbye to the Nissan 350Z and picked up its replacement, a Nissan Juke n-TEC. I was sad to see the back of my first full-on sports car, but it's so impractical as an every-day drive that I just couldn't justify keeping it. After four years of performance motoring, the Juke's engine is a bit of a step down: as I mentioned last week it's less than half the size of the V6 fitted in the 350Z. There's no throaty roar to this machine - in fact it's remarkably quiet. When you put your foot down it doesn't bellow incoherently and jump into warp drive like the Z did. But the Juke has many advantages: it does nearly twice the number of miles to the gallon and runs on regular rather than super-unleaded petrol, the road tax for it is roughly a quarter what I was paying for the 350Z, it can seat five people rather than just two; with the rear seats folded down it has a decent load-carrying capacity, it's in a far lower insurance group, and for a geek like me the dashboard is a delight: it is absolutely stuffed full of bells and whistles.
Driving it is very different. The ride is much softer, and I am sitting a lot higher off the road than I'm used to. As you'd expect, that means that cornering is a different game altogether. You don't throw the Juke into corners like I could with the Z and I think my mantra will be "nice and easy" until I'm more sure of its capabilities. I won't really get to know it until I've taken it on a few longer trips, but I'm really pleased with Nissan's mad moon buggy so far.
We might be half way through March but I'm still listening to and adding comments to songs on the FAWM website. Today I've spent several hours taking in a fantastic selection of music and leaving messages of encouragement and, where it's appropriate, effusive praise. As of right now I've left comments on 416 songs by other people. I've enjoyed hearing a fine selection of music from all sorts of different genres and discovered some great musicians in the process. And I've made some new friends, too.
I've already blogged about how FAWM is the high point of my creative year, and I'm really pleased with the work I did. But I've realised that it is just as important to listen to other people's work and let them know how much I appreciate what they're doing. It's inspiring to hear just how many talented and inventive people there are out there and the music I've heard over the last six weeks has been a revelation. I've been surprised again and again by what I've heard, whether it's odd time signature pieces by my feline friend Mojo, a duet between piano and the slowed down recording of a thrush or looped harmonica and ethereal vocals, from lo-fi campfire punk to tributes to Django that just absolutely rock out. It's all better than good, it's amazing. And I am proud to have been a part of it.
It was rather nice to get a lie-in this morning. I'm taking a couple of days off after a late night on Wednesday and generally chilling out. On Wednesday on the way home from London, the 350Z rolled over to 76,000 miles on the clock, so yesterday I headed into town and ordered my next car; the Z is a phenomenal machine but it's not cheap to run and frankly it's just not practical as a car for general use. More details will be forthcoming next week when I pick up its replacement, but things will be different: the new car's engine is less than half the size!
I was back at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Wednesday night:
Markus Reuter opened the evening with a soundscape performed on the U8 Touch Guitar he built himself. From a quiet opening he gradually built up a wall of sound that was dark and intimidating. Then he was joined by Pat and Tobias, who added drums. It was a really powerful piece. When it finished, on came the rest of The Crimson ProjeKCt and thundered into B'Boom. Markus has the unenviable and frankly intimidating task of playing Robert Fripp's guitar parts for the show, but he did a grand job. And Mr Fripp has given his blessing to the venture. In fact, the band name was invented by Robert Fripp after he and Tony Levin had contemplated 'The Stick Men and the Adrian Belew Power Trio that do a set of King Crimson's Music' and decided it was "not easily do-able." It would have been quite difficult to fit that on the hoardings outside the venue, at least!
The two trios took time to play some of their own music but combined to deliver a blistering set of music from some of my favourite albums of all time: Discipline, Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair, and Thrak. We got B'Boom, Thrak, Dinosaur, Frame by Frame, Sleepless, Neurotica, Three of a Perfect Pair, Elephant Talk, Matte Kudasai, Red, One Time, Indiscipline and Thela Hun Ginjeet as well as Stickmen's Crack in the Sky, Cusp, and the Firebird Suite, and the Power Trio played B and E from Adrian's extraordinary 2009 album e. There was an improv session. And there was more, I'm sure; it all became a bit of a blur.
The thing about the gig that really stays with me is the sheer joy that the band exude as they perform together. Adrian was smiling and grinning and clearly having a whale of a time playing fiendishly difficult guitar parts and punching the air when, each time he had to lay down a guitar part into a loop pedal, he nailed it on the first take. I've been playing with loop pedals myself for a while now, and the ease with which he did this belies just how unbelievably difficult it is to do right. He subjected his Parker guitar to considerable abuse, but he was getting an extraordinary range of sounds out of it including one point where it sounded like a troupe of chattering monkeys. He and Tony performed Matte Kudasi as a duet and afterwards Adrian said "Every time I play that with Tony I realise just how much he adds to the piece." Hear hear. Both of them have been inspirations to me as a musician for over thirty years.
Tony doesn't get an easy ride, though. He has to sing in one time signature and play in another. Every time I've seen Indiscipline performed live, it's been obvious that the whole point of the intro is to put Tony off; he holds down a rock solid beat in 8/4 while the drums do all sorts of bizarre things that aren't just contrapuntal, they are distinctly other. Bruford could make Tony go crosseyed with concentration trying to focus on what he was playing rather than what Bill was doing, but Pat and Tobias have turned this part of the show into a comedy routine that had quite a lot of people in the audience laughing out loud (I assume it was all the musicians). The drum part went into all sorts of places that prog rock doesn't normally venture. It was hilarious. I have never seen two drummers gel like that on stage before, and I've been to more than one Grateful Dead concert, if you know what I'm saying. At one point Pat dropped into a classic 70s disco rhythm that was at a completely different tempo to what Tony was playing. The look on Mr Levin's face was priceless. But he nailed it - and that's why he's the greatest session bass player in the business.
I got back to the car just after 11 and had an unnerving drive home through freezing temperatures and thick fog on the M4, getting in at about 1:15am. It's been foggy here pretty much all the time since. Last night the temperature was barely above freezing. I'm rather glad I'm nice and warm at home right now.
This morning there was no frost for the first time in a couple of days. Now it's Friday afternoon, the Sun is shining, and the outside temperature has reached a mind-boggling 14°C (or 57°F in old money). It's not been this warm or this sunny for months. However, as I drove down the hill into the village just now I had a look at the fields, and I won't be going out for a walk just yet; they're still very heavily waterlogged. Still, the forecast is for a spell of warm, much more settled weather for the next few days so maybe spring isn't too far away after all. I hope so - I'm a mass of aches and pains at the moment and although I feel a bit better after a restorative coffee and a Belgian bun, I could really do with some nice warm sunshine.
As I type up the blog, the strapline on this story about caffeine in the Guardian has tomorrow's date on it. Never mind; it's an interesting article about my favourite addictive substance. And boy, it really is addictive. From some of the comments made it's a wonder any of us is allowed to consume the stuff. Except that, if we weren't, civilisation would probably collapse overnight.
If you like your metal (and who doesn't?) I strongly recommend watching Sam Dunn's TV series Metal Evolution. I've been watching it in the evenings on Blu Ray this week after seeing it in HD on a German television channel, recognising Sam as the guy behind Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and deciding on the spot that I needed to track down a copy of the show, which was made in 2011.
Anthropologist and metalhead Dunn has interviewed a staggering selection of musicians for the series, including Lemmy (Motörhead), Geddy Lee (Rush), Roger Glover, Ian Paice and the late, great Jon Lord (Deep Purple), Scott Ian (Anthrax), Dave Lombardo (Slayer), John Kay (Steppenwolf), Geezer Butler and Bill Ward (Black Sabbath), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Peter Criss and Ace Frehley (Kiss), Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Mike Anthony (Van Halen), Dick Dale, Slash, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Uli Jon Roth, Yngwie Malmsteen and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top). Oh, and he also meets Ted Nugent, who easily cruises into first place as the least likeable person on the show. Nugent really does make an effort to come across as profoundly unpleasant, and in a field where egos frequently run rampant, that's quite an achievement.
Even if you're not a metalhead, you'll likely find the series interesting just from the personalities involved. It's fascinating watching the musicians as Sam greets them and shakes their hands - most of them don't even bother to make eye contact with him. Some just look bored, others pathetically tired and run down. So far it's Aerosmith's Tom Hamilton who comes over as the most likeable, down-to-earth guy in the show. He's clearly paying attention, and really interested in what Sam is trying to do. Meanwhile, Bruce Dickinson effortlessly strolls off with the award for being the sharpest card in the deck; I haven't seen anyone else so far with his vocabulary or intellectual firepower. Great stuff.
I've been feeling rough for the last week or so but over the last couple of days it's really been difficult to summon up enough energy to do anything. I didn't even write a Sunday blog entry, that's how bad it was. I made it in to work, but this evening I'm going to have supper, soak in the bath with a book for a while, then head off to bed. My brain is fried.
Part of this is, I'm sure, the fact that the pressure to come up with more songs is off (at least until July). I'm still listening to and commenting on other people's stuff, but the site isn't accepting further submissions now that it's March. I unwound on Saturday night listening to Juha and TC's FAWMtalk post-FAWM spectacular on YouTube and chatting on irc with a whole bunch of other FAWMers, which was huge fun. In the process I somehow drank an entire bottle of red wine. The subsequent hangover on Sunday morning really hasn't helped matters along. I've really noticed the comedown this year now that the adrenaline has eased off and even a quick burst of cowbell is only a temporary means of stirring myself from this lethargy.
So I've decided not to come down. It's as simple as that. While I've eased off February's frantic pace, I am not going to stop making music. The interesting thing is that creativity is like a muscle: it gets better when you exercise it and this year, doing so has got to be a habit. I am still coming up with ideas, so I will carry on writing stuff down and - when I feel a bit better - recording it. And if it's good, it might well end up on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Okay, I'm not going to get the instant feedback that FAWM affords me, but you'll still listen, right?
Yesterday was the last day of meteorological winter. Today it's spring, and outside I can see frost on the roofs after one of the coldest nights this year (the temperature outside dropped below -2°C). The wind has dropped, it's not raining and even better, the Sun is shining. The buds on the magnolia outside the window are beginning to grow, and I really hope that the weather has changed for the better. It's been the wettest winter since records began in the UK, and the South West has been badly hit. We could do with some time in the sunshine right now.
Yesterday was also the last day of February, and the last day of FAWM. I'm more than a little bit sad that it's all over for another year.
This year, FAWMers produced a spectacular grand total of 9901 new pieces of music. I had a hand in seventeen of them. So, twenty eight days after the madness started, what did I discover? Every year I pick the top five new things that I have found out about the way I create music, and summarise them in the blog. This year is not going to be any different. Make no mistake, the five things that I talked about in 2013 are still hugely important (particularly the use of EQ and limiters), but I want to talk about new discoveries from this year, so here we go...
In past years, I was a teensy bit precious about stuff I'd laid down. That's not to say I was a completely "this is an authentic record of my performance and not a single note will be changed" kind of guy, but this year I told myself, "Don't be afraid to edit stuff." And I'm glad I listened to what I was saying. I made a lot of sense. :-)
Editing is ridiculously easy to do in Ableton Live; I can transpose, move or cut sections or individual notes and I've been doing so on a small scale since I first started using the software. But this year I was hacking things about on a much larger scale (I was able to do this easily because of item 2 below, but we'll come on to that in a moment). This year I have been making a conscious effort to listen to what I was doing from a basic construction viewpoint; does the song's structure work? Does everything hang together? Are the gaps between the verses sufficient? Does the song "breathe" okay?
Last year I did a lot of one-take recordings. As I sang and played, the Korg would play drums, bass, and whatever other KARMA accompaniments I'd programmed in and I recorded everything in one go. With the surge in adrenaline that this technique produces, it's not always easy to listen to what you're doing and stay detached enough to recognise that you need another four bars before you throw in the bridge. This year, though, I only came up with the final shape of songs long after I'd recorded the individual tracks that I'd played. In some cases I switched choruses and verses round, or dropped entire sections because I didn't need them. By paying attention to the overall feel of the song, I was able to come up with much stronger compositions, at least as far as I'm concerned, anyway.
Editing this year has also meant delving into the minutiae of a track. For In Shadows, the Bond Theme that I did with Mel, I ended up adjusting individual MIDI note velocities on some tracks so that I could bring out the right melody line in the orchestral accompaniment. And it was immensely satisfying to hear how much of a difference it made to the overall result. A definite win.
2. TOONTRACK'S EZDRUMMER IS THE BUSINESS
This year I started off a lot of tracks by playing along to a basic rhythm track at the right tempo and with the beat I wanted, created using the EZDrummer VST plugin. With a solid drum track in place, I could improvise different sections for each track I recorded and know that when I dropped them back into Ableton, they would always fall on the beat. That let me chop things up and play with structures far more easily than I've been able to do before, and I could mess about with different versions of verses and choruses to see what worked best. When Mel made significant changes to the structure of In Shadows it was a piece of cake to just slide the original sections to their new locations and (as the saying goes) not miss a beat.
Once I had the shape of each song set out the way I wanted it, I could then go back to the drum track and drop in individual fills and variations on to the basic patterns. This makes the drums appear to respond to what the other tracks are doing. It gives the songs a far more coherent feel than I was ever going to get with a basic drum loop. But as everything on the drum track is controlled by MIDI I could also tweak how loudly each drum is hit, so I could emphasise or tone down the cymbals, for instance. The results can sound remarkably sophisticated; listen to Hands Free for an example of something I put together with me freaking out on the Theremin and improvising on the Korg M3 played through a loop pedal, set against a regular 5/8 jazz beat played on the "Drumkit From Hell" EZDrummer expansion pack.
The drums have been fed into a second audio channel which has Ableton's "Drum Room" reverb applied to it, and there are a few embellishments courtesy of the Ableton Push. Mmmm, jazz. Nice.
When I listen to the tracks I've recorded with this method, it sounds to me far more like I was playing in a band with a real drummer than I have managed in the past. And that is *exactly* what I am looking for in a drum application.
3. CHECK YOUR STUFF BEFORE YOU UPLOAD IT
As a corollary to item 1, I still hear a lot of stuff done for FAWM where the artist doesn't even make a rudimentary attempt at editing. Okay, it's not everybody's cup of tea. But, rightly or wrongly, doing something as simple as taking the time to remove the clunking noises at the beginning and end of a take when you're operating the recorder can make a huge difference to people's reactions to a song. There's no real excuse for not doing this, after all: if you've got the technology to produce an mp3 file and upload it to the Internet, you can download audio software (such as Audacity, which is completely free to use) that will let you trim off the three minutes of silence at the end of your ukulele masterpiece. And if you're recording several tracks and combining them, even if you aren't using a mixer, please normalise things (i.e. make each track roughly the same level) before you combine them, okay? Some folks - whose music I really like, by the way - have been leaving little bursts of a previous song that has been stuck in their DAW template at the beginning of everything they've uploaded for weeks. It leaves me with the impression that they just didn't listen to what they'd done before they uploaded it.
I always, ALWAYS listen to the final rendered file of each song, and even though I create it using Ableton, I load it into Audacity and play it through before exporting it as an mp3 file. On several occasions this step has brought to light inconsistences in the mix or even (gasp) mistakes that I couldn't justify keeping, so back I went to Ableton to do some more work. Even then, before I uploaded the song to FAWM I took the file downstairs and listened to it on my other PC, which has a pretty average set of Dell speakers on it rather than the Rokit RP5's I use upstairs. The Rokits are proper monitors, the Dell speakers are pretty basic (although the subwoofer helps). I made sure I was happy with how a song sounded on both sets of speakers before it made it out into the real world.
There are still a couple of tracks where I need to tweak the levels a bit, and I might do that this weekend at some point, but on the whole those extra run-throughs have helped to improve the quality of my songs this year by a quite noticeable amount.
4. HEADPHONES FOR DETAIL; MONITORS FOR EVERYTHING ELSE
In the first few years of FAWM I worked almost entirely with headphones. Not just for recording, but for mixing and checking as well. And I hear stuff from back then now, and cringe. It's not just the wonky songwriting, or the quite frankly appalling singing, it's also the production values.
Headphones are great for picking up the mistakes, the bum notes and the mouth noise in the vocals. But all that detail stopped me from picking up the overall feel of a track and when I hear those early songs, oh boy, I can tell. I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to grab a set of dedicated monitors like mine, but don't rely solely on your headphones. Get some air moving and listen to your stuff with a couple of loudspeakers. And position them so you can hear the stereo image.
Since I bought a decent set of monitors I have been delighted with how much better everything sounds when I do finally listen to it on headphones. But this year, I only ever used cans when I didn't want the mic to pick up the playback I was playing along to. The rest of the time I was using those trusty RP5s. The result? Better sound, greatly improved production values, less fatigue, and no ear infections.
Oh, and better songs, too. That's important, right?
5. COLLABS ARE SERIOUSLY ADDICTIVE. AND FUN.
A huge thank-you to everyone who was generous enough to invite me to play with their FAWM toys this year: @pallidust, @postcardhelicopters, @tesla3090, @stevenwesleyguiles, @dragondreams, @ericdistad, @marvsmooth and @skullcrush all helped me rediscover how much fun you can have making music as part of a team.
So those are my lessons learned for this year. This month I will continue to listen to what has been produced, bust zongs, leave comments and feedback, and generally enjoy being part of one of the most fun creative communities on the web. And it's only four months until 50/90 kicks off again. I can't wait!