Anything I could write about the current situation in the United States would be, quite frankly, irrelevant. I'm well aware of my own privilege as a middle-class white male living in a small country village here in the UK. To my family and friends over there, I can only say: look after each other, stay well, and stay safe.
With the launch of Crew Dragon yesterday, human spaceflight has finally been handed over to the private sector. And despite the fact that the number of deaths in the US from COVID-19 passed 100,000 this week, the crowds were out in force to witness the spectacle.
Back in the middle of April I tweeted about how unwise I thought it was to go ahead with the launch in the current circumstances. I still feel that way; I am not looking forward to the resultant spike in cases and deaths that will most likely now occur in June.
Things won't be any better in the UK, either. There were chaotic scenes at Durdle Door yesterday. Things kicked off after four people seriously hurt themselves by misguidedly "tombstoning" off the arch. It's a 70-foot drop into the water and not surprisingly they were so badly injured that they had to be evacuated by helicopter. That meant cordoning off most of the beach so that the helicopters could land. And that meant that any chance of people staying two metres apart evaporated.
Resorts have been packed this weekend. Matt Hancock (who, I'm sure by complete coincidence, just happens to be MP for Newmarket, the centre of the UK's racing industry) has decided that horse racing events can take place again starting tomorrow. After Dominic Cummings broke the rules on lockdown, the public have clearly decided that if the people making the rules can't be bothered following them, neither will they.
The second half of June is going to get nasty, I reckon. If you can, keep staying at home.
The Met Office announced a couple of days ago that this spring has been the sunniest since their records began back in 1929, and it has also been one of the driest, as well as being unusually warm.
And oh boy, was I aware of that fact when I started my third livestream on Twitch on Thursday evening. It was 30° Celsius in the studio and even before I got started, I was dripping with sweat.
I had one or two technical glitches this week thanks to swapping out more of my old cables for some shiny new ones and not noticing that I'd accidentally engaged the pad button for one of the outputs on my studio controller in the process, but by the end of proceedings I'd got the bones of a track together. I've been working on it a little more since then, and by Thursday I should have something reasonable to play back.
I've also reprogrammed the piano looper setup I was using on the Korg. I really wasn't satisfied with the results and thanks to the same mistake that I mentioned above, it had recorded so hot that it was clipping in places. With my levels smoothed out again, I'll have another go at recording an improvisation with it this week. I hope you'll tune in at 19:30 BST on Thursday to give it a listen.
"Now that I don't have so many worries and anxieties about the future, I'll be able to sleep soundly," I told myself last week. Ha ha, nope. The soreness in my joints, particularly in my elbows and shoulders, has returned with a vengeance and as a result every night this week I've had the worst night's sleep I can remember having in years. I feel shattered. After a couple of nights of this I was so tired that I got up, had breakfast, then went back to bed again and dozed off for a couple of extra hours. Did it do any good? Not really.
I'd planned to get a few things done this week, but lethargy got the better of me and apart from finally ironing the huge pile of laundry that had been sitting on the armchair behind me for more than a fortnight (which led me to discover that some of my clothes and bed linen were in urgent need of repair—which I'm proud to say I managed to accomplish with a needle and thread), writing some letters, creating a bunch of end titles for my Twitch channel, surviving my weekly shopping trip to the supermarket, and live streaming from my studio on Thursday for an hour and a half, I spent most of the week feeling very tired and sorry for myself. I was still awake at 3 in the morning on several nights, and I'm still feeling the aftereffects of that.
When I woke up yesterday, the Kindle by my bed was forlornly displaying its "Please charge me!" symbol; I knew exactly how it felt.
Last week I met one of my neighbours as I walked home from posting a letter at the local Post Office. It was nice to catch up with things (at a socially responsible distance, I hasten to add.) We talked about Covid-19, of course; she was convinced that the virus did the rounds of the street last December, well before everything kicked off and while we were all throwing Christmas and New Year's parties, meaning that we would all have been exposed. Whatever it was that she caught laid her out flat for a week. Her husband was affected more severely, and he nearly had to be hospitalised thanks to a dry cough and acute shortness of breath. Her immediate neighbours reported being affected to varying degrees, with some people feeling terrible while others in the same household showed no symptoms whatsoever.
My neighbour works somewhere that has a lot of international visitors, including many from China, so at first glance this seems like a very plausible story. The problem is that while the initial emergence took place in China's Wuhan province some time in November or December 2019, human transmission beyond China's borders didn't get going until the week before Christmas, when it arrived in Singapore. Genetic testing has enabled the phenotype of the virus's many strains to be tracked in painstaking detail as it spread around the world, and the first case in the UK was recorded on January 29th this year. That's six weeks after the virus started to go global, which seems too long a delay for whatever was going around the street at Christmas to be Covid-19. I suspect that whatever arrived in the village last year was a nasty variant of the regular influenza virus, although I guess we'll never know for certain. The complete lack of either infection or antibody testing in sufficient numbers continues to severely hamper efforts to contain the spread of the virus and it could be much more widespread than is currently suspected. If you can't be certain who's got it and who hasn't, the best response is to assume the worst and keep away from other people; just stay home and maintain the lockdown. The NextStrain website is quite clear about the degree of uncertainty in the data that's available:
"Although the genetic relationships among sampled viruses are quite clear, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding estimates of specific transmission dates and in reconstruction of geographic spread. Please be aware that specific inferred transmission patterns are only a hypothesis."
I know several people who have definitely had Covid-19, and from what they have told me, I'm almost certain that I haven't had it yet. Almost. For a start, I've barely left the house since last August, let alone since the lockdown started. For another, I haven't had the dreadful experience that they told me about, of feeling so exhausted that they regularly fell asleep in the middle of conversations. And yet last week, when I read this Guardian article about Professor Paul Garner's experience and clicked through to read his blog post for the British Medical Journal, the atypical symptoms that he described started ringing bells with me, and not just the aches and pains. Several nights this month I have woken up to find the pillow drenched in sweat. I am permanently exhausted, as many recent blog entries will testify. The upset stomach and painful calves also sounded familiar. But I've had no tightness in the chest, no shortness of breath, no tachycardia, no dry cough, and no dizziness.
In short, I don't know whether I've been infected or not. The only way that I could find out is by getting an infection test and an antibody test. Unfortunately the current levels of incompetence being displayed by the government mean it's pretty unlikely that I'll get tested any time soon, if at all. Developing tests that can be rolled out at the enormous scale required is hard.
I'm just going to stay in isolation at home for the moment, I think.
I discovered this week that, as an Amazon Prime member, Twitch will save my streams for sixty days instead of the 14 days I'm entitled to as a raw newbie, which is nice. Nevertheless I'm still editing them down, tidying them up, and posting them to YouTube. Last Thursday's stream, in which I wrote a theme tune for the show, is now available for your delectation and delight.
I went back into the studio on Saturday afternoon and tidied up the track, so it will indeed be ready for next Thursday's stream. Please tune in at 19:30 BST on May 28th to hear the results.
Ever since the training team I'd worked in for nineteen years got closed down, way back in 2014, I've spent considerable amounts of time not working. I am proud (or quite possibly just naive) to say that I have not claimed benefits of any sort at any point over the last 25 years. I've learned to make the most of periods of full-time employment and I maintain a "rainy day fund" to tide me over in the lean times; in this respect I am the polar opposite of my father, who has always spent any money he acquired as quickly as possible. Although I left my last job a year ago, I haven't touched that fund yet. I know that this makes me incredibly fortunate, and that a lot of people are in much worse situations than me at present. I am counting my many blessings right now, believe me. However, in the next month or so I will reach the point where I will need to start dipping into my savings in order to pay the bills that I continue to have and keep my bank manager happy.
Understandably, I've been getting a little anxious about running out of money. Watching my savings gradually disappearing during the first half of 2016 was one of the most unpleasant periods of my life, and I really wasn't looking forward to going through that again in 2021 if I couldn't find myself a paying job to do first. Although the kidney stone and cyst that I'm suffering from aren't affecting me too badly at the moment, the prospect of having to cope with them and hold down a full-time job at the same time is not something that fills me with any joy or enthusiasm whatsoever. I doubt any prospective employer would want to take on somebody who might disappear for days at a time if things should flare up (and believe me, when the pain does kick in, any capacity for protracted rational thought flies very rapidly out of the window). Nor does the idea of sitting in a car driving to work for an hour or two every weekday appeal to me in any way at all. And let's face it, being able to have a lie-in on any day of the week has been absolute bliss for me, because even after spending a year recovering, there are days when I still feel completely burned out.
And, of course, the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively obliterated my prospects of finding a new job in the next few months—if I'm realistic about things, the rest of the year is going to be a write-off (and then I will—hopefully—be having some form of treatment to fix my kidneys.) So I have been more than a little bit concerned over the last few months as I watch my bank accounts dwindling, and I have struggled to sleep well at night. Anxiety and insecurity are both bastards for bringing on insomnia, and my usual happy-go-lucky nature has become a bit of a facade lately, masking both impostor syndrome and a woeful lack of self confidence. Maybe that's inevitable when the company you work for doesn't rate your abilities high enough to keep employing you; when it happens to you twice in a decade, you do start to doubt your own abilities.
I made a comment in my last blog post that I thought that the Universe had been smiling on me last week. It turned out that the Universe had barely gotten started.
When I checked my snail mail on Saturday afternoon, the last letter I opened was a communication from the first pension fund that I joined way back in 1980, when I worked for Post Office Telecommunications (since privatised, and now known as BT). I get statements about my fund from them regularly, so I'd assumed that this letter was just the latest update.
As it turned out, it wasn't...
Without going into the details, the letter means that I can consider myself to be retired with immediate effect. I no longer need to look for another job. I will be able to live quite comfortably until I reach the state retirement age and all my other pension plans kick in. To say that this has come as a welcome relief is making a massive understatement. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off me. For the last few nights, I have slept like a log. And on Sunday, when one of my friends asked me on Facebook, "Does this mean we can expect more music from you?" my reply was quite simple:
You're damn right it does!
Twenty-five years ago today, I called in at the estate agents in Long Street in Wotton-Under-Edge to pick up the keys to the property that I'd just bought. The removals van arrived at the house an hour later and I set about the process of moving in. By teatime my father had arrived to lend a hand. That evening, I drank my first pint in the Railway Tavern with him, never suspecting how many times I would return there over the coming years! After a week, the house looked like I'd been living there for years, and with my two cats settled in it really felt like my home. And—apart from a nine-month stint in Tampa in Florida the following year—I've been living here ever since.
I look back at the person I was back then with fondness, but also with profound sympathy. He was a mess. Despite the fact that he was in his mid-thirties, he really hadn't figured out life at all; he was going through a divorce; he'd developed a hernia and was trying his best to ignore the fact; worst of all, he had been suffering from chronic depression for several years. And I really mean it when I use the word "suffering", because he was in a lot of pain. And yet, while he was beginning to suspect that there was something seriously wrong with his mental health, it would be another thirteen years before things got so bad that he actually did anything about it and saw his doctor (he got his physical health sorted out rather more quickly; it only took him three years to cave in and seek treatment for his hernia...)
A quarter-century later, any lingering pain I may suffer from is due to old age and nothing else. While I suspect my self-confidence will never be particularly robust, and I will always have occasional PTSD flashbacks thanks to things that happened to me when I was younger, I am, dare I say it, happy. These days I feel comfortable in my own skin to a degree that I wish I could have possessed when I was younger. The depression will probably never go away, but apart from the occasional wobble it's being kept under control. Given the events of the last couple of days, I feel more positive about the future now than I have done for the last seven years.
Now, if the rest of the world could please just kindly sort itself out, I can get on with enjoying village life (and retirement!) once again...
How on Earth can it be Saturday again? Where did this week go, eh? I hope you're managing to stay both well and sane in these increasingly strange times.
I know exactly why my week has flown by; driven by anxiety about wanting to to a really good job on my first proper livestream, my current obsession with setting up the studio so that everything can be seen and heard loud and clear escalated significantly. I got properly carried away.
One thing I've learned from watching a lot of other people's livestream shows over the past couple of months is that you can never test your gear too much, especially when you might need to do things during a livestream that you don't normally do with the equipment you perform with. You don't want to discover in the middle of a live show that the thing you assumed your devices will handle without a hitch is actually something that they will steadfastly refuse to do. Nor do you want to make it to the end of a performance only to discover that something vital wasn't plugged in...
I've played enough gigs over the years to know also just how important it is to rehearse every performance. And as a trainer, I learned a long time ago how valuable it is to record yourself on camera and identify anything that maybe you should try to avoid doing in front of a live audience. Video can be unforgiving, but the lessons that it teaches you are valuable ones. Watching my first run-through of what I planned to do revealed a lot, and I saw that I needed to move the Korg M3 out into the room, because the spectacle of me scooting from side to side on my chair got old very quickly.
When I recorded things last weekend, I'd assumed that balancing the levels of all my different audio sources would just be a matter of experimenting with volume controls, making a test recording with OBS, and then listening back to how they sounded (then repeat the process ad nauseam). But I continued to have problems getting Ableton to sound as good as it did in the room. And I quickly realised that running two separate mixers (the one on my Korg D3200 multitrack and the Mackie eight-channel mini-mixer that I bought a few years ago) wasn't going to work if I needed to adjust the relative levels of sources either quickly or accurately. The eight-channel mixer has been great for wrangling all the inputs that I have, but it doesn't even have proper faders. I got obsessed enough about doing things properly that I decided to check my favourite musical equipment retail sites to see if there were any good deals that might be worth taking advantage of. This wasn't entirely on a whim; last year Mackie announced version 3 of their ProFX series of mixers. With fluorescent green detailing and Onyx mic preamps built in, the new ones are gorgeous bits of kit to be sure—but they're also way out of my price range given my present circumstances. However, it occurred to me back when the V3 range was announced that a lot of shops were going to want to offload their inventory of the V2 series before too long, because who wants to buy last year's model of anything?
Me, that's who! I'm not proud—I've adopted that money-saving strategy for my entire adult life when purchasing musical gear (and, indeed, anything else ranging from television sets to ski wear), and it's served me well.
I've therefore been keeping an eye on what ProFX v2 mixers were going for since the end of last year. I'm a big fan of Mackie's gear; they make both the eight-channel mixer and the "Big Knob" studio controller that I use (oh, behave!) and they sound great, and are both built like tanks. When I started surfing the web on Monday, in a quite glorious bit of serendipity I discovered that one shop which I regularly use was running a promotion on their stock to clear their inventory of the V2 models. And believe me, it was much too good an offer to ignore, as they'd dropped the price of the larger mixers in the old ProFX range by more than two hundred quid compared to some of the other major retailers; evidently I was meant to upgrade my setup at this point, as the price drop had brought getting a 22-channel mixer into my price range; this was a big surprise, as I'd assumed I wouldn't be able to afford anything above 16 channels. Clearly, the Universe has been smiling on me this week! I sighed heavily, abandoned my self-imposed constraint of getting the studio up and running for streaming without spending any more money, and clicked the "buy now" button. I was plugging it in to the rest of the studio by lunchtime on Tuesday, at which point I realised that the carefully-drawn diagram from my previous blog post is already out of date.
Moving things around exposed the dodgy quality of a few audio cables in my setup, but to be fair some of them are forty years old. I learned this week that I should always check whether or not it's the cable that is not working first when I hit problems. It's an obvious likely point of failure but for some reason I forgot that and wasted hours trying to feed the Zoom Q8's audio inputs from a variety of different sources. When I eventually swapped out leads for newer ones I realised that my first choice of input source had been the correct one after all. This made a big difference to the sound I was getting and I was able to turn down the gain on the Q8's inputs from maximum to about 3. And now the output from Ableton Live comes through perfectly to OBS, which was the objective of all this mucking about in the first place.
I also solved the variation in volume levels between scenes that I got in OBS by abandoning my original approach of specifying all the audio sources from scene to scene and disabling the default ones. Now, I've cut down on scene-specific audio sources and instead I've set the ones that I needed as defaults in the main audio settings tab. OBS's help documentation is pretty sketchy on audio matters, but after checking and unchecking a few boxes that seemed to indicate they might have an effect, I ended up with consistent sound levels across all the different audio sources that I use. Feeding as much as I could through the mixer definitely helped here, specially when I twigged that I could use each channel's mute button to temporarily remove any sources that were causing problems from the livestream mix.
The adaptor for my Lavalier microphone arrived on the Wednesday and it works perfectly. Even better, having a bigger mixer means that rather than plugging and unplugging mics into the single input I was using on the old mixer, I now have enough channels available to leave them all plugged in. I need to remember to use the mute button on the ones I don't want to pick up what's going on from moment to moment, but that's going to save a lot of wear and tear on my gear's XLR connectors.
As I read through the mixer's manual I realised that rather than leaving the TC Electronic "Mic Mechanic" pedal just plugged in to my trusty Røde NT1-A, I could now feed it from an effects send on the mixer and run it on all my mic inputs. Five minutes later, I'd got it rigged up and once I'd twigged that I first needed to disable the clean mic feed out to the main L/R mix bus—yes, I'm one of the big dogs now, working with mix busses—it worked like a charm and it's given me an unanticipated extra level of flexibility to my vocal sound.
A big goal for me in doing this is that I want to give my stream a quirky, personal touch that reflects my personality and interests, so the next step was to put together a few hand-drawn captions that I could use for the show, then scan them in to the PC and use them to make some introductory and end-credit videos. I enjoyed doing that so much that I'll be back at the drawing board next week to make some more.
However, there comes a point when the rehearsing has to stop and you have to do things for real. For me, that point was at 19:30 on Thursday night when I clipped the Lav mic to my fleece, picked up my Parker Fly, and clicked on the "Start Streaming" button in OBS...
You can judge for yourself whether or not all my obsessive testing and faffing about with gear paid off on Thursday's first show live on my shiny new Twitch channel, because I've put the whole thing on YouTube. I'll do the same with all my future streams as well, as they only remain available on Twitch for 14 days after they are broadcast.
I got some nice feedback from my friends who tuned in. My brother let me know that in his house they had set up their smart television to watch the show on the big screen in their living room, so my audience there consisted of six people and a dog, which is two people more than Bad News got for their live show, so I've got to say I'm very pleased with my ratings.
The Korg M3 could have been louder, I thought. After digging out the user manual and reading through the relevant sections of the 674-page Parameter Guide pdf, I discovered that it was easy to reassign outputs 1 and 2 to duplicate the outputs of its main L and R output jacks. I'm rather embarrassed to admit this, but I bought the thing back in February 2011 and for all this time I've been using the default outputs which are controlled by the volume slider for the headphone socket. The resulting output signal that's been reaching my mixer is a pale shadow of the signal that comes out of the other outputs (when you switch them on using the Global Settings page on the M3's touch screen, that is). The difference in the bass response is insane. As I said to a friend on Facebook yesterday, what I've been guilty of is rather like buying a high-performance sports car but then only driving it around in first gear for the best part of a decade. Sheesh.
Another thing I've done as a result of what I learned going live is to add labels to all the mixer channels that are currently active. Thank goodness for those little miniature Post-It Note tags; there's always room for a chronic stationery habit in rock and roll!
My obsession with this is showing no signs of abating. Rather, it's been raging fiercely and the rush of adrenalin that I got from last week's show does not appear to be wearing off (or perhaps its been replaced by one of my very infrequent phases where my depression disappears and I go a bit manic). I've been so jazzed by the whole thing that I've been having difficulty getting to sleep. At half-past one this morning I was lying in bed wide awake while my subconscious insisted on coming up with lyrics that I could use for my show's theme tune—because of course my show is going to have a theme tune, isn't it?
I'll be going live again on my Twitch channel this coming Thursday at 19:30 BST, so I hope you'll be able to join me there. Come and say hi in the chat!
One thing that hasn't helped me to get a decent night's sleep this week has been the weather. The bedroom got so cold on Sunday night that it woke me up, dropping to -2°C in the back garden. When I got up on Monday morning, I pulled the winter blanket out of the airing cupboard and put it back on the bed. It was almost as cold on Monday night too, dropping down to 0°C.
Another thing that isn't helping me at the moment is the amount of aches and pains that I'm suffering from. Shoulders, hips, elbows, and ankles have all been flaring up this week. Spending hours in my studio isn't helping matters, and neither is the fact that I've been so deeply engrossed in things that I've been forgetting to have regular drinks (and I've even skipped meals, that's how far down the rabbit hole I've been this week.) As a result my kidneys have been grumbling again for the last few days and I cannot get comfortable when I do finally go to bed. On Friday morning the sleep tracker app on my phone gave me a truly woeful score of 33/100 for the previous night. Not good.
But I had a lovely video chat with Helen earlier this week and as we commiserated with each other on our various aches and pains she suggested that my admittedly insane levels of computer use at the moment could be what's causing most of the problems I've been suffering from. I need to get up and move about more. And I'm going to try cutting down my computer use over the next few days (he typed, after sitting at the PC for the last four and a half hours updating the blog). I've made sure to have regular drinks today. I'm really hoping that I can get a decent night's sleep tonight. I need it.
I've been down the technology rabbit hole again, and for the last three days I've become more than a little bit obsessed about setting the back room up for livestreaming, to the point of forgetting to eat. But as of last night, I think I'm pretty much there. This is how things are looking in the HFO studio:
I can already hear you thinking, why did it take three days for him to produce a three-minute-long video? Well, once I started putting a rig for livestreaming together, things rapidly became way more complicated than I'd expected:
- I started by downloading and installing the free open source video mixing and streaming program Open Broadcaster Software after seeing what a sterling job Devin Townsend was doing with a copy on his livestreams. So then I had to teach myself how to use it properly. I haven't finished that particular task yet, as will become clear in a moment.
- Once I realised that I could use multiple cameras with OBS, I dug out my Zoom Q8, installed its webcam driver on the studio PC, and then spent several hours deciding on the best viewpoint for it that was within reach of the longest USB to mini-B cable that I could find kicking around the house (and checking multiple collections of USB cables of various sorts that I have in random drawers and cupboards was a non-trivial task in itself. I ended up using a bright blue 4-metre cable that I'd originally bought for charging my PS3 controllers, as I could route it over my head to the back of the PC. Thank goodness for velcro cable ties.)
- To get the Q8 where I wanted it, I had to move lots of stuff around in the studio and swap mains leads around to power the Neewer ring light that the Q8 is sitting inside.
- Then when I fired up OBS to see how things looked and caught sight of the Q8's view of the studio, I spent the next couple of hours tidying the place up, because it looked terrible.
- When I tried a test recording, I discovered that OBS couldn't hear anything coming out of Ableton Live. It turned out that this is because Ableton uses ASIO drivers to talk to my audio interface, and OBS doesn't do ASIO. At all. When I searched the web for solutions, they all involved adding extra bits of audio driver software to the studio PC, each of which adds more latency to the signal chain (latency is the gap between when you do something in a program and when you see or hear the result on the computer; the less latency you have, the better.) I thought this might end up being a showstopper...
- ...but then I realised that the Zoom Q8 has twin XLR inputs, so I could take a spare stereo monitor feed from my studio controller (which gets signals from everything in the room) and feed it into the Q8.
- ...except that when I plugged the cables in to the Q8, it created an horrendous ground loop that made the audio signal unusable. Swapping the cable pair for a different set had no effect. But I've been doing this long enough that I knew just what to do: I needed to use a DI box with the signal going into the Zoom so it would be isolated from the rest of the system. I managed to pick a cheap one up online for £22 (the admittedly very upmarket Rolls HE18 that I'd bought back in 2014 to fix the same problem with the audio out of my Blackstar amp cost me nearly three times as much). When the new DI box arrived yesterday evening and I plugged it in, the buzzing disappeared completely. Even better, OBS could record the output from Ableton without me adding any noticeable latency to the system at all.
By the time I'd successfully recorded the video last night and posted it on YouTube, this is what the studio set-up looked like:
There are still a few things that I need to tidy up before I'm finally and definitively ready to go live, though:
- You may have noticed the large change in volume levels when I switch between different scenes in OBS. Weirdly, both scenes use the same audio source, so there shouldn't be any audible change in the sound level. At present I can't figure out why this is happening, so that's today's infuriating puzzle that needs solving.
- I need to balance the relative volume levels of all the audio sources I'm using so that nothing swamps anything else; Ableton's a bit quiet at the moment. That's not just a matter of adjusting volume levels on the mixer and studio controller and listening back to the results, though; I need to understand what OBS does when it receives audio from more than one source simultaneously (I suspect that it adds the two together, which might be why the volume levels are going up and down when I switch cameras.)
- Using a dynamic microphone like the Shure Super 55 to pick up my voice in the room works well when I'm sitting at the computer, because it doesn't pick up sources further away or behind it (like the KRK monitors that I use) and that means I can avoid having to wear headphones, but unfortunately it also means that if I move further away from the mic—which I need to do when I scoot across the room to play the Korg M3, for instance—it barely picks up my voice. It's a pity, because the Super 55 is the best mic I've found for the timbre of my voice. I tried using my Røde NT1-A instead, a large-diaphragm condenser microphone that can pick up sounds from much further away, but it turned out to be way too sensitive and I found myself fighting feedback all the time. But am I going to let this stop me? Of course not!
- ...because I remembered that I have a small collection of clip-on Lavalier lapel microphones in my bag of camcorder gear. It's funny how all those old hobbies of mine are proving their worth during lockdown. Perfect!
- Well, not quite: you can't just plug a lapel mic into a 3.5 mm to quarter-inch jack headphone adaptor and then stick that into an input on the mixing desk, because it won't work (and it's amazing how often people on home recording forums ask why their system isn't picking up their spiffy new Lav mic.) The reason is that Lavalier microphones need a five volt power supply; they're not passive (when you use them on a PC, they get their juice from the computer's mic socket, which works very differently to a mixing desk.) It was time to grit my teeth and spend some more money: I've ordered an adaptor that will convert the 48 volt phantom power from the mixer down to the voltage that the Lav is expecting; fortunately, you can get a capsule adaptor with a 3.5mm jack socket for the mic on one end and a standard three-pin male XLR connector on the other for less than thirty quid.
So yeah, it's been an interesting few days. It's certainly helped to pass the time (I was fiddling about with mics well past midnight last night.) And of course I have absolutely no guarantee that anyone will be interested enough to watch a livestream from me anyway, but we'll cross that particular bridge some other time.
For now I'm waiting for the Lavalier mic's power adaptor to arrive, which should happen on Wednesday. Then I can start to get things under way. My idea, such as it is, is that I'm going to record an album of very calm, ambient, synth-based material for release on Bandcamp and stream the entire production process from setting up an initial track template in Ableton right through to mastering with Ozone 9. It'll give me plenty to do for the next couple of months, at least.
Who knows? Maybe people might actually find it interesting enough to tune in and watch!
Getting old sucks, kids. I'm a wreck. Just so you know.
I'm beginning to suspect that the violent stabbing pains that I have been getting in my left hip when I "move wrong" are the beginnings of arthritis, as once or twice this week my right hip has joined in the fun. I am also suffering from a very sore ankle at the moment (it's never been right since I tripped and fell down the stairs in Milton Keynes Central Library about thirty years ago.) The ankle pain has been disrupting my sleep for the past week and it got so bad a couple of days ago that I got back out of bed and went for a wander around the house in search of something to give some respite. At that point I discovered that the tube of Deep Heat at the back of the bathroom shelf had deteriorated into a watery goo that very much wasn't going to do anything to ease my pain; when I checked the expiration date on the tube, it said "June 2011". Oops. It was a relic from an old skiing trip.
However, it turned out that wearing socks in bed helped somewhat. I'm working on the theory that applying pressure around my ankle is what alleviates the pain, so I ordered myself a cheap ankle brace to see if it can make things a little more comfortable. It arrived this afternoon and as soon as I put it on, I could tell that it made a difference. I managed to walk to the local shop and back to buy milk. All the same, I might order myself a new tub of tiger balm, just in case...
The PM, clearly rattled by Kier Starmer's deft skewering of his many inadequacies during PMQs this week, was panicked into making an impromptu announcement that some lockdown measures will be lifted starting next Monday, thereby abandoning his "stay at home" message and apparently ignoring the fact that three out of the five test conditions for easing lockdown that his own team came up with have not been met.
Watch the video highlights of PMQs in that first link above and you'll hear Johnson cite the research of Professor David Spiegelhalter in order to evade the very unflattering international comparisons of the UK's response to the disease. Unfortunately for the PM, the Professor was watching, and he was not happy about it. He published a statement shortly afterwards that asked the PM to stop quoting his work and recommended that "we should now use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high."
Meanwhile, the shipment of 400,000 medical gowns from Turkey that have finally been flown in to the UK (at great taxpayer expense) by the RAF has been impounded at Heathrow Airport because they do not meet the standards required for NHS use. The UK now has the worst death toll from COVID-19 of any country in Europe and the farcical response of the government is leaving foreign media commentators stunned at the complacency on display, driven by the PM's all-too-evident incompetence. Our death toll has now passed 30,000.
Do I think that it's safe to reduce lockdown measures yet?
Will I resume my "normal" levels of social interaction as a result of the PM's assurances that we're "over the worst"?
And will I be installing a kludged-together tracking app on my phone that ignores the suite of security guidelines that were developed for that specific purpose by Apple and Google, and which was put together by the mates of someone who John Major described as a "political anarchist" and who David Cameron called a "career psychopath"? Or, to put it another way; am I going to trust someone to ensure the security of my personal data when they were associated with a company who just got slapped by a £500,000 fine by the Information Commissioner's Office for data security breaches, let alone get called in to a public enquiry to give evidence about the fact?
I'm over the worst of last week's wobble, I think. I had a really good day yesterday, sorting out a number of things around the house that had been bugging me; giving the kitchen a much-needed clean; getting a letter written; and then getting a bit of exercise for the first time in over a week by walking to the Post Office to post it. By the time I went to bed last night, my step count was over 7,000. While that's still woefully short of my daily target of 10,000, it's the furthest I've walked in a day for three entire months, and doing things other than sitting in front of a computer definitely helps to boost my mental and physical health. This morning I feel more like my old self.
Even better, over the last few days I've been getting emails from Bandcamp telling me that people have bought a copy of the new album. You would not believe how much good those emails have done me. It's not about the money, and never has been; as I've said to friends on numerous occasions, I make music because I simply can't imagine not making it. It might have taken me forty years, but I think the music I make these days is worth listening to, and not just by me. I think I've arrived at a method, and a sound, and somehow—and this has been a great surprise to me, let alone to anyone else—even a voice that works for me.
I'll be the first to admit that being paid for making music is very nice indeed, though. Every single sale is very much appreciated. As of this morning I'm close to breaking even on my distribution costs! But I've realised that what is much more important to me is the fact that people have enjoyed listening to the music I've been working on for the last three months enough to buy a copy. I am genuinely thrilled by this, so thank you, all of you. It really has done me a power of good.
One of the highlights of my days during lockdown is the daily podcast from the Stay At Home Festival that's curated by the Cosmic Shambles Network, presented by Robin Ince and Josie Long with recalcitrant technology (and everything else) ably wrangled into shape by their producer Trent Burton. Each show is a mix of science, comedy and music, featuring special guests who talk about their interests from their homes (or, in Stewart Lee's case, from the World War II Anderson Shelter in his garden). They've already raised more than £15,000 for artists and venues who have suffered a loss of income as a result of the lockdown, which is amazing work. Head over to the site in the link above to catch up on previous shows and find out when the next one's happening. They're great fun to watch.
I know an evil empire is desperately trying to co-opt today for their marketing department to exploit, but May the Fourth has a much darker side to it than my younger readers might think. Fifty years ago today, the Ohio National Guard murdered four unarmed students during a protest at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. One of those killed wasn't even part of the protest; another was shot in the back. A further nine students were wounded. If ever there was a moment when the world realised that the wave of peace and love that had rolled in with the sixties had broken and rolled back, it was May 4th, 1970.
It's May Day and Beltane and while I haven't got any cattle to drive out into their summer pastures as is traditional on this date, I do have a new album that I've just released into the wider world. It's called Oneiric Tulpas.
As you can see from the new graphic at the top of the page, it's available right now on Bandcamp and it will be available on your favourite digital outlet or streaming service shortly. I'll add links at the top of the page as those go live.
This time around, expect weird, quirky, angry prog rock. The angry part is probably the easiest to explain; before FAWM started I'd planned to write a number of songs about politics and incompetence and how the two seem to have become inextricably linked. This was initially inspired by Brexit and, of course, you-know-who. But then people I know started dying, and rather than sitting here feeling powerless I needed to vent about how badly the US and UK have mismanaged their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. I've been feeling very angry about that, and as a result the music I've been making has an aggressive edge to it that was helped a lot by me picking up the Chapman Stick again for the bass lines on several tracks. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy playing the thing, and I got a great sound through my current setup.
There are songs about loss, and separation, and isolation, because that is the head space I've been in for the last few months. Releasing the thing on the day which has become synonymous with an international distress call was too good an opportunity to miss, to be honest. It feels like we're all in distress at the moment to one extent or another. But my natural happy place is the weird and quirky, so when it all got a bit much that's where I went to cheer myself up and decompress. One track came about because Janelle Shane had been making neural networks generate candy heart messages again (and I still think I need to release an album called Mouthy Hamster at some point in my musical career). As I'd just finished reading Robert Anton Wilson's three-volume autobiography, and I'd been in a distinctly odd frame of mind anyway thanks to the state of things globally, I let things start weird and just went with it. Even I'm not sure what the end result is all about, but it was fun making it. To give you another idea of just how far I went down the bizarreness rabbit hole, the album's title track was inspired by the fact that in recent months I seem to have developed the somewhat unusual habit—and this is the honest truth—of cropping up in other people's dreams. My FAWM buddy Peter, a.k.a. Abomnium called it "Lush, trippy and damned unnerving," which is just the sort of feedback on my music that I really like, because that was exactly the mood I was going for.
I have to admit that I got more than a little bit obsessed about making this album sound as good as I could possibly make it. I rewrote lyrics over and over again. Then I'd listen to the results, and realise that I'd just thought of a much better line that I should have sung instead, so I went back and redid the vocals. And then did the same thing again; as I worked on one track earlier this week I discovered, thanks to Ableton incrementally numbering the recordings that you make on any given audio track, that I'd made more than 125 passes on the lead vocals for one song. And after that, I'd get frustrated with the guitar tracks not fitting in with the rest of the mix, and go back to fiddle with them as well. Then I'd listen to the new version, think of even better lyrics, and start the whole cycle over once more...
The obsessiveness didn't stop when I got to the mixing and mastering stage, either. I thought I'd acquired an acceptable level of skill after doing this sort of thing for so long, but no; after upgrading my iZotope production suite at the end of March, I've been working through online tutorials about how to use its new features, as well as discovering how each program in the suite can improve the music that I make. And oh boy, I soon realised how much I still have to learn. I've been trying very hard to resist the temptation to go back and fix all the errors I now realise I'd been making in earlier recordings, but I'm just going to focus on how much better the new stuff sounds, and leave the old stuff alone.
So now the album's launched, the submissions to all the streaming services are under way, and while I wait for the info I need to add it to my PRS account I'm going to try hard not to collapse in a heap. After three months of sustained, daily focus on the thing, I'm not sure I want to find out what happens when I take my foot off the gas. So I plan on starting work on the next album as soon as I possibly can.
But I might take the rest of today off first.