I'm Blogging This

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: March 2015

March saw me saying goodbye to two huge heroes of mine: Leonard Nimoy and Sir Terry Pratchett. That took the wind out of my sails rather a lot and coupled with work, it meant the blog was a bit light on content for most of the month. There was still a lot of music around, though. That helped a lot.


Last night I woke up several times to hear the wind rattling the windows. Down in Avonmouth a gust of 69 mph was recorded at 2 am. It's still quite lively out there now.

I wish I felt as lively. I feel unfit, overweight (although I'm 20 pounds lighter than I was a couple of years ago) and constantly tired; even when it's not blowing a gale I wake up several times in the night. I've been spending far too much time in gront of the computer recently and I need to get outside and breathe in some fresh air. More exercise is definitely required. I used to go for a long walk every Good Friday, so I think I might just do that this week. Providing the wind dies down a bit first, that is.


Yesterday I spent the evening at the Academy in Bristol, where Devin Townsend and the Devin Townsend Project delivered a very entertaining set to a capacity crowd of around 1800 delighted fans:

Devin Townsend Project at the Bristol Academy

I'd not seen Devin play live before. I was wondering what the gig was going to be like after he'd tweeted "flu be damned" in the morning and posted a very melancholy video about the stresses of touring a couple of days previous to that. I needn't have worried. He hit the stage with terrific energy (explaining after roaring through four songs that "I'm overcompensating!") and proved to be an accomplished showman. Actually, that's putting it mildly. He worked his ass off.

His singing voice is quite extraordinary. It ranges from metal-style screaming all the way to an impressive full-on operatic tenor. And he wasn't going to let any British germs cramp his style. Forget the whole "I'm saving my throat" approach - he went for it. There was no holding back. The crowd responded to this, too; when they loudly applauded him for making a beautiful job of the vocals on the encore song "Ih-Ah" (just him on stage with a Fender Telecaster) he stopped and said "oh, shut up!" but he appeared to be blushing. His routines might be a bit eccentric - he had us doing jazz hands at one point (and pretty much everybody joined in) - but his stagecraft was impeccable. I have seldom seen an artist take the audience along on a journey quite as effortlessly as he did last night. It was a delight to see. Devin clearly enjoyed himself, too.

I should also mention the support bands: Shining from Norway and Periphery from Maryland, both of whom were excellent. Shining are purveyors of what they call "Black Jazz" (think black metal but with saxophones and keyboards) and Periphery were aptly described by one of my friends as "proggy djenty screamo" and that absolutely nailed it. Periphery's guitarist Misha Mansoor has worked with Animals as Leaders and though my eyesight might have let me down on this point, I'm pretty sure that at one stage all three guitarists were playing eight-string guitars. I approve.

But the most effusive praise has to be reserved for Mr Townsend. The gig turned me from merely liking what he does to being a rabidly dedicated fan - the next time he tours, I'll be there, for sure.

As for me, this morning I am wiped out. I've already had a pint of coffee but I think I need the stuff Ziltoid drinks, because the caffeine really isn't doing its job today.


...leaves a lot to be desired this morning. It's raining and very blustery; in fact there's a "severe weather" warning in place for the region because of the wind and even down here in this sheltered little valley the windows are rattling.

The clocks went forwards last night, and so far this morning I have had to adjust:

  • My resolutely non-digital wristwatch
  • The clock in my bedroom
  • The handset for my land line phone
  • The clock in the hall
  • Two model robots that have clocks built in to their bodies
  • The light controls in the living room
  • The birdsong clock in the living room
  • The weather station
  • The clock in the kitchen
  • The cooker
  • The microwave
  • The central heating timer
  • The PS3
  • The Gamecube
  • The clock on my desk
  • The VCR connected to this PC
  • The clock on the mantelpiece
  • Two cameras

My alarm clock, the clocks in the bathroom and the conservatory, my digital radios and the car all sort things out for themselves because they get their time and date from radio signals or satellites and are accurate to within a second (and the fact that I can type that as if it's no big deal still boggles my mind). Later I'll go into the studio and set the clocks on the Korg M3 and the D3200 but I'm sure there will be other devices I've missed.

Despite all this grumbling, and the fact that I now have to convert times on the website's feed.xml file to GMT because RFC822 doesn't acknowledge the existence of British Summer Time, I do like having an extra hour of daylight in the evenings. It won't get dark tonight until around eight. I won't see this, however, as I'll be rocking out at the Academy in Bristol to the Devin Townsend Project, which I am very much looking forwards to.


The BBC News magazine has a fascinating little article today about how a six-second drum break became one of the most ripped-off pieces of music in history. As soon as you watch the video and hear it, you'll recognise it.


I've spent the whole week marking student assignments, but I uploaded the marks this afternoon so I'm pleased to say that's that module done and dusted. It was a challenge to pull everything together in a little over a week, but judging by the papers I got back, several of the students really got the subject, which was great to see.


Oliver C has built himself a flying model of the Millennium Falcon. It looks amazing.

And it handles just as badly as the real thing at low speed, by the looks of things.


I have been watching YouTube quite a bit in the evenings; I hooked up the PS3's YouTube app with my Google account this week. Since the village got superfast broadband I've been able to stream HD video, but until now I'd only watched Amazon Prime video stuff on the big telly. I was still watching YouTube on the computer.

One channel I subscribed to recently is drummer Dave King's Rational Funk channel. Ostensibly a series of drum instruction videos, they're presented as a stream-of-consciousness comedy goldmine that also makes some really strong points about the state of the music business. Recommended.


I spent most of yesterday down at The Exchange in Old Market, listening to some metal and catching up with friends. I was there to support Phil, Duncan and Jordan from Brocken Spectre and their friends Nycosia (who were playing their set without a bass player). Phil was running in his latest guitar: a Schecter Blackjack eight string with ridiculously low action and a fretboard that appeared to be completely flat. It sounded bloody good. And yes, Brocken Spectre have got even faster; Duncan said they're rattling through the set around 5 bpm above what they were at last month. How Jordan could even stand up at the end of things is beyond me. It was brutal.

I was disappointed that the event wasn't better supported - most of the audience consisted of the other bands - but I enjoyed myself.


I'll just leave this recipe for Gin and Tonic cupcakes here. That's my sort of cooking...


I've been busy this week. I got home on Tuesday night after spending two days teaching in Dartford, which was fun. Since I got back I've been immersed in marking assignments, which is a relatively new experience for me. It's interesting work and I'm enjoying it, but it's already Friday evening and this month feels like it's rolling by at an alarming rate. At 22:45 this evening it was the spring equinox, which doesn't seem right somehow. It can't be three months since it was Christmas, surely? I remember bits of January, and February was a FAWM-driven blur, but you're telling me it's spring already? How did that happen?

I've decided that one blog entry a week isn't enough. Frankly, I need to write more stuff because I'm getting twitchy. Blogging has become a habit, and I do a lot of typing - I bought this keyboard in July 2013 and I've already worn a good few keys on it smooth - but this evening the main reason I'm sitting in front of the monitor is that I'm on one of my diet days and I'm trying to avoid snacking by doing something productive. I overdid the business lunches while I was away and I am now regretting the fact, so I'm doing something about it. Which means no Friday night pizza. Or wine.

And that may be another reason why I'm feeling twitchy.


This morning we got a solar eclipse. It wasn't total, but up to about 90% of the Sun's disk was hidden, and the change in light quality outside was pretty noticeable. It was a gorgeous morning - I wish it had been like this on my birthday back in 1999 when we did get a total eclipse and I didn't see anything other than the clouds going dark.

Perversely, the lack of cloud cover made photography more difficult; I took a few photos, but I didn't get any particularly good ones. On board the MS Boudicca in the North Atlantic, Pete Lawrence was in the zone of totality and he got some very nice pictures. I'm very jealous.


Life is not fair. Terry Pratchett passed away this week.

As I said on Facebook, I will always treasure the afternoon I spent with Terry, many years ago, after a signing at Forbidden Planet. He spotted my alt.fan.pratchett shirt and gestured affably at a bunch of people in the corner. "You see all those refugees from Star Wars over there?" he asked me. "We're all sloping off to the pub afterwards. Are you coming?"

I didn't have to be asked twice.

I've known for a long time that I'd eventually have to write an obituary on the blog for Pterry after he announced that he had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease back at the end of 2007. But I wasn't expecting to do so quite as early as this. And just how hard his passing has hit me was a surprise. It's really knocked the wind out of my sails. I was supposed to go out to a gig on Thursday night, but I realised when I got home after work that I wouldn't be able to face other people for a while. Knowing that he's not around any more feels like somebody's turned the brightness control on life down a notch. I'm not alone in this, either. Rob rang me on Friday afternoon and told me, "Now I know how you feel when one of your heroes dies..."

Because Terry was a hero of mine. One of the greatest. He was a master of his craft, brilliant, sharp, witty, creative and fizzing with ideas. He was also down to earth and fantastically humble. And he was fiercely, angrily opposed to injustice, oppression and the abuse of power. Neil Gaiman wrote an article in the Guardian last year about how people would say to him what a lovely chap (or "jolly old elf") Terry was, and how this was absolutely not what Neil thought of him (and he'd known him for thirty years) or was what Terry would think of himself. There's a rage and an anger in Terry's later books against the damage that laziness and stupidity can wreak - or allow others to wreak in the name of the lazy and stupid people - that produced some of the best literary work of the past century. Terry was many things, but if you got to talk to him for long, you realised he most definitely wasn't a "jolly old elf." I wish I'd got to talk with him again, for longer, but life is not fair.

Life is not fair.

Life is not fair. For Terry, that just wasn't bloody well good enough. That's why the Discworld books are so good. That's why they resonate with so many people. As the creator of the Discworld, Terry takes his role to task. He uses the wonderful device "narrativium" as a metaphor for shaping plot so that, just sometimes, things turn out for the best. Things happen in Discworld books because the narrative - the story itself - demands that they be so. But the narrativium is, in reality, Terry's sense of justice and fairness, of right and wrong. The books appeal because that sense of fairness is so finely reasoned and impeccably realised. The deliciousness of seeing the plot of his novels unfold in such a way that you are left, not just feeling satisfied, but vindicated; the way he could write and give you the sense that he knew exactly how you felt about the world and crafted a solution that would make the pain go away for a while; the fantastically serious and weighty issues that were nestled in books that literary critics dismissed sniffily as fantasy - the creator of those worlds has a far better sense of morality and justice than ours appears to hold.

Just read Snuff as an example of Terry at his finest, railing against racism and exploitation and "turning a blind eye"; where stupidity is perhaps the greatest evil of all. And the author bloody well does something about it. What is driving that book is not the genial affability of a "jolly old elf" at all. It's the blistering rage of someone who cared deeply about everyone, regardless of creed or race or species. It's the outrage of someone who doesn't see why some folks shouldn't be given a fair crack at things just because they're different to the people with power. It's the work of someone for whom consent by omission would never, ever be acceptable. Terry wanted you to know just how bad things are - because only by knowing, can you start to change things. Terry Pratchett wanted life to be fair. Not just for him, but for everyone.

Life is not fair. But Terry made you believe that, one day, it might not be quite as unfair.

And that is what made him one of my heroes.


FAWM may be over but I'm still listening to people's songs and leaving feedback as much as I can. I said I'd blog about some of the best material I've discovered this year, so I guess I'd better deliver the goods. With over 10,900 songs on the site I just haven't been able to get to everyone's stuff yet; if you're a FAWMer and I don't mention you, I apologize - but it's nothing to do with the quality of what you've done. I just haven't had enough time to listen to averything. Right then, buckle up - this is going to be fun!

First of all, I have to give a special shout-out to my friend Mel, a.k.a PalliDust, a.k.a. RYAKO, who I've known for years but who only got sucked in to the FAWM madness for the first time last year. This year, she's very definitely one of the family. Aside from producing a fantastic selection of tracks on her own including an awesome rap summary of The Fifth Element, she's also really embraced collaborative working this year - my favourite, I think, is No Way Back that she recorded with Austria's beat. It's ethereal, spacey and haunting. Shades of Yoko Kanno come to mind listening to this one.

Some more friends of mine joined in the FAWM madness this year; I've known Paul (a.k.a. Coggers54) since I was in primary school and he came up with a gorgeous selection of music that shows off his impeccable guitar playing. Just up the coast from him in Vancouver, Scott (a.k.a ssmigiel) and Deborah (a.k.a. bittersweetdb) both romped home to impressive wins with some great synth-based goodness.

Cameron Piko can be found on FAWM as dunwich, and I picked up early on that he and I share a lot of musical influences. Check out Metal Disco Pirates for an example that shows off his multi-instrumentalist skills. I picked up on a strong Mike Oldfield influence in this one.

Rod Johnson, a.k.a. Downburst can always be relied to come up with interesting songs (and it was a pleasure to work with him on an exquisite corpse this year) but Someone Else's Summer really shows off his songwriting and singing chops. I described it in my comment as "one of your best" but listening to it again it's clearly one of the best songs I've heard on FAWM this year.

Last year I discovered the wonderful music of Jacqui Carnall, a.k.a. Expendable Friend, and she was back this year with another great selection of extraordinary songs. Each arrangement is beautifully crafted with a wide selection of instrumentation. Everything she does makes songwriting and performing seem effortless, and when it comes to subject matter she can be relied on to make you sit up and take notice. Case in point: X-rays out / secrets in.

Many thanks to John Cooperider, a.k. ZeCoop, who took a basic track from me and turned it into something amazing with Moai. John describes his musical influences as "all over the map" - but even so, Say Goodbye, the collaboration he did with Minnesota's BijouBasil is such an impeccable riff on Portishead's music that it left my jaw on the floor. BB's vocals sound so like Beth Gibbons it's uncanny.

This year Jon Nelson , a.k.a. Jonmeta and his colleague Joeblomberg quietly got on with producing smooth, listenable jazz in the vein of Steely Dan. Impeccable numbers like Big Bad Wolf deserve a much wider audience.

Perusing the tag cloud on FAWM introduced me to several new genres this year. Buttronica brought me to the musings of JW Hanberry, and his epic production Bumbledrum Hive, which went in a completely different direction to what I was expecting. "Crustpunk" brought me to Sapient's collaboration with colourcodedchaos, Graveyard of Empires. I don't often have to resort to Google to understand song lyrics, but I did for that one.

Odilon Green can always be relied to write something that makes me snort my drink over the keyboard, and this year the cognitive dissonance kicked in early with his anti-song for cat lovers, Kitten In The House.

My friend Peter Watkinson, a.k.a. Sapient produced another wave of impeccably produced metal (and taught me a lot about improving my sound in the process). But it was when he teamed up with another of my favourite FAWMers Joanne Gabriel, a.k.a. caterwauler that the magic happened. The Eternal Return is quite possibly the most amazing thing I heard on FAWM this year.

Tina Marshall has utterly embraced surf rock this year and has been forcing it to do strange and unusual things and the results have been hilarious. When free jazz made a sudden attempt for liberty she forced it to participate in We Shouldn't Care about the Colour of his Hair or the Length of his Skin before granting it its freedom. it's the sax playing on this that utterly reduces me to hysterics.

Tom De Simone, a.k.a. TizzDizz brought some lovely 80s synthpop to the game; I particularly liked the wonderfully named Shoulder Pads Make You Bolder Dad.

I really dig what Tom Engebretsen does, and his big beat extravaganza Art Of Noise is a perfect example of bombastic production that just builds and builds. Glorious stuff. It's impossible to sit still while listening to this.

I've enjoyed listening to WobbieWobbit's songs for years - so much of what she writes resonates with me and her music is suffused with gentle humour and good-naturedness. This year she wrote about something that I don't have direct experience of, but it's something that plays a big part in the lives of some of my closest friends: Sugar Baby is the perfect song for anyone who has ever played Candy Crush.

I've listened to so much good stuff this year, and saved loads of songs to listen to again. Looking at everything in this year's download directory I wish I had time to write about every track, but I just don't have time. I will just say particular thanks to Caterwauler's partner in crime Mojo, and to my friends Valerie Cox, Tim Fatchen, Max van Remmerden, Rob Stevens and Martin Quibell for their music and for their support. And to everyone else who stopped by, many many thanks.

It's been huge fun, as it always is. Here's to next year!

LEONARD NIMOY 1931 - 2015

It wasn't unexpected, as he'd announced last year that he was suffering from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but when I heard about Leonard Nimoy's death this week I felt very sad. As a small child there were very few people on the television that I was interested in, or cared about, but at the top of a very short list (the only other person on it would have been Gerry Anderson, I suspect) there was Leonard Nimoy. When I was eight, I wanted to be Mr Spock. It was as simple as that.

When I heard the news, I spent Friday evening with a glass of wine watching The Voyage Home with the director's commentary playing (It was Nimoy's second stint behind the camera on a Trek film), and it is, and always will be, one of my favourite films. The warmth of the man comes through in every aspect of the movie. Hearing him laughing as he reminisced with William Shatner about filming in San Francisco brought a lump to my throat; as the two of them talk about the passing of DeForest Kelley and ponder how they'll be remembered when they, too, exist only on film, it was difficult not to burst into tears.

The role didn't make life easy for Nimoy; his first autobiography, released in the 70s, was titled "I Am Not Spock". But after the series was cancelled, his career seemed driven by a desire to show that he was more than his most famous role. And he succeeded; he became a successful film director (directing a total of six feature films) and a talented photographer. And as the Trek audience both grew and mellowed, and the feature films garnered another generation of fans, he reconciled his relationship with his green-blooded, pointy-eared alter ego, releasing a second autobiography in the 90s which admitted "I Am Spock". It's a conversation between the two sides of his character, and it show the creative side of his nature very well. It was also a sign that Nimoy had learned to do just what Spock would wish, to live long and prosper. Indeed, "LLAP" became his signature on Tweets he sent from his Twitter account.

How much impact did Leonard Nimoy have on popular culture? Put it like this: when he met Barack Obama, Nimoy was greeted by President raising the Vulcan salute. Beyond that, anything I can say about Nimoy has already been said with more eloquence by people who are far more qualified than I am to comment on his passing. But when the President of the United States comments on your death with the words, "I loved Spock," I think we can assume you've led a good life.

Thanks for everything, Mr Nimoy.


Wow, where did that month go?

FAWM is over, and after spending pretty much the entire day in the studio yesterday I ended up with a final count of 21 songs, my second-highest total in the seven years I've been taking part. I wrote 14 songs on my own, and recorded another 7 with other musicians on the site, including two with my friend Mel, who always manages to push me beyond what I think I'm capable of, taking me into new and rewarding explorations of music. Collaborations really are an integral part of FAWM. The results are often surprising, and never quite what you expect. Hearing your efforts being taken in new directions can be a hugely rewarding experience. Case in point: Moai, which I recorded with John Cooperider, a.k.a @ZeCoop.

When the site closed for uploads at noon today, a grand total of 10948 songs had been added. That's an outstanding achievement. If memory serves, last year we didn't quite make the five figure mark. Over the next week I will be listening to what my fellow FAWMers have been doing, leaving feedback and making as many comments as I can, because that's an essential part of February Album Writing Month. It's how we learn as part of a community; it may sound trite, but you really do get out what you put in. I find out a lot about how I can improve my own music by listening to how other people make theirs (and see point 4 below for a great example of that). I'll blog some of my favourites, too - I've enjoyed listening to some great songs over the last four weeks. Some people just make the whole songwriting thing sound like it's the easiest thing in the world.

In my experience songwriting can be very hard indeed, but I do occasionally get lucky; Dark Matter was one example of this, and my final bow for FAWM this year was another. My final count was the source of my inspiration for the last song, and once I'd decided on a card game reference for a title, I set up a crunchy rock backing in EZDrummer2 with the Metalheads kit, picked up the nine string and had a go at sounding like Lemmy on it. The results were good enough to record, so I pressed the button and went for it. Two RG-9 tracks, recorded totally dry, panned hard left and hard right, and rhythm playing on the Jackson - in a single take! - stuck in the middle. Two takes on the vocals, using a submix in Ableton to glue them together with a single set of EQ, compression and a teeny bit of reverb. I think I'd done the whole thing in about two hours.

I was amazed by how the final result sounded - it sounds like a "proper" metal track. With my new microphone ready for vocals and a voice that has come on a fair way from the feeble croak that was all I could manage a fortnight ago, the results really surprised me. One commenter said I sounded like the singer from Type O Negative, and I'll take that as a big compliment.

So, as I always do, here are the top five things I've learned this year as a result of my adventures in FAWMland:

1. Large diaphragm condenser microphone = bring on the awesome

On the first week of the Audio Production course I'm doing at Coursera, our Professor made a pretty bold statement: "You need a large diaphragm condenser microphone." I had a look online and as Amazon were selling the Røde NT1A in a bundle with cable, shockmount and pop shield for £120 (a ridiculously good deal, as it normally goes for around £145) I ordered one immediately. It takes phantom power off my Korg D3200 and the difference in sensitivity between it and the Shure SM58 I've been recording vocals on for years immediately became apparent. Normally I'd record my voice with my nose pressed against the pop shield; quite often with the SM58 I'd go even closer and have my nose touching the mic itself. If you're more than a couple of feet away from it, the SM58 loses interest. There's nothing wrong with that; it was designed that way, because it's designed to be used on stage in a loud environment. But the studio is not a loud environment, at least not all the time. With the Røde I found myself stepping back to get a quieter level, hearing a great sound, then stepping back again and hearing another great sound, and hearing nuances in what was coming through on the headphones even with minute changes in the position of my head. Actually being able to hear intense detail in my vocals has meant that I can use my voice more effectively; I'm never going to have a career as a singer but at least I don't entirely suck any more.

Oh, and the NT1A is also incredible for recording acoustic guitar. Very definitely money well spent, I'd say.

2. Submix your stuff

Another thing I learned from Coursera was to get into the habit of creating submixes. In Ableton this is also referred to as grouping tracks - it just means you collect similar tracks together and apply one set of mixing parameters to all of them rather than to each one individually. It's easier to keep track of relative volume levels and it also massively cuts down on the number of insert effects you need to use, which helps conserve processing power on your DAW.

I also think it makes the tracks seem more coherent, as though they were all recorded at the same time. Which is a most desirable thing with the sort of music I'm recording, isn't it?

3. Get a pop shield for your mic

I've been using a pop shield on the SM58 for a couple of years now. With the NT1A it's pretty much essential as the plosives in my breath from the letter "p" sound like miniature explosions otherwise. But I still hear lots of people recording their voice without one, (even in some of the podcasts I listen to, and the folks doing those really should know better) and the pops and thumps and bangs with every "p" and "b" in the lyrics can be hugely distracting. You can pick up a pop shield for around a fiver - or failing that, you can just stand a little further away from the mic. Don't beat up your listeners, let them hear the gentle strains of your voice without things exploding.

4. Metal guitars don't like reverb or delay. Keep 'em dry.

I am hugely indebted this year to Peter Watkinson, a.k.a. @Sapient, for his incredibly informative thread on the FAWM forums about how he records metal guitars for his tracks. Put simply: use bridge pickups, turn down the gain so it's not all fuzz, don't use any delay effects like echo or reverb, and doubletrack, panned hard left and right.

I gave it a go, and suddenly people were complimenting me on my guitar tone. That'll be a win, then.

5. Don't overthink it

This year has been very busy. I just didn't have time to sit down and plan a track, and I didn't have the opportunity to think about what I was going to do in advance more than once. The track where I did approach things in a methodical and theoretical manner beforehand turned out to be the weakest thing I put together all month. Conversely, what I'd consider to be my two best tracks this year were each recorded in a couple of hours. Lack of time forces me to focus on what's essential and drop any of the fancy messing about that I'd otherwise throw in. On Dark Matter I could have put a nice twiddly synthesiser piece in between each verse, but I was pushed for time so how about I just drop the track back to the drums for four bars and then move on?

Hmm, it's the dropping back to the drums that really grabs you, isn't it?

Lesson learned, I think.

And now it's March, which means it's just five months until 50/90 kicks off. I hope you'll be joining me for the fun when the madness begins again!