It's the last day of the month, and somehow it feels like it's been May for much longer than 31 days. As a quick skim through the posts below will show, I've had a tough time of it recently. I really hope that June brings a change in both my fortunes and my mood.
Today is the late May Bank Holiday here in the UK. It's also the half-term school holidays and quite frankly you wouldn't think that there's a pandemic happening at all in this part of the world. The southbound M5 has been queueing along almost all of the stretch running from here down to Weston-Super-Mare for most of the weekend as people decide that they've had enough of being stuck at home and head off to the seaside. I can't really blame them for taking advantage of the good weather because it's a really beautiful day out there, but the amount of traffic about makes it almost inevitable that the UK will experience a large spike in cases of Covid-19 next week and that could jeopardize the further lifting of lockdown restrictions in June.
But—as I said a couple of days ago—I have been gritting my teeth and soldiering on. I've been celebrating little victories, like winning my dispute on YouTube or losing two pounds in weight over the past week. So it's onwards and upwards...
It would appear that YouTube have upheld my dispute against a copyright claim by SODRAC which alleged that I'd used a track by the (dead) 60s French heartthrob Serge Gainsbourg during my fiftieth Thursday night show on Twitch last month (spoiler alert: I hadn't. I was playing my own music.) The claim has caused me considerable stress and anxiety over the past month, and it also really pissed me off, because the track that was cited in the claim sounds nothing like my music.
As YouTube Studio no longer shows a flag on the episode, I'm assuming that the claim has been dismissed, but true to form YouTube have made absolutely no effort to let me know about it.
They really don't give a stuff about creators.
I spent this afternoon trying to tune the studio PC's performance to try and get it running smoothly. I've done very little work on new music for the last few weeks, not just because I have been mightily vexed by the SODRAC claim that I mentioned above, but also because the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 Mk 2 audio interface that I'm using at the moment continues to fall over at regular intervals. Every noise that comes out of it becomes horribly distorted until I change the buffer setting on its ASIO driver to a different value. Despite sterling efforts above and beyond the call of duty by NI's support people, it's still doing it. And I'm still seeing those weird CPU spikes, too.
Hearing everthing getting bitcrushed to death doesn't exactly foster creativity, and my musical output for the past couple of weeks has dwindled to nothing. I recently took delivery of a Zoom G6 guitar multi-effects unit, and normally the addition of something as cool as that to my setup would result in a deluge of music inspired by the new sounds I could make. Instead, I've done nothing—which is another symptom that suggests to me that I'm in the throes of another episode of depression. Last month I'd managed to write a pretty good (IMHO) song about how I was feeling, called Doldrums:
And when I say "pretty good" what I actually mean is "quite possibly one of the best things I've ever done." But this month things have ground to a halt. I'm finding that dealing with recalcitrant hardware has sucked all of the joy out of making music.
So I've been doing quite a bit of Googling about sudden spikes in CPU usage being experienced by Windows 10 users (something that I've seen happen recently on my system that just might be associated with the audio interface issue), and it seems that one of the updates released by Microsoft back in December may be responsible. The fix (rolling back the update and disabling further Windows updates until Microsoft have addressed the issue) feels like it could cause more problems than it solves, so I have decided to just wait and see what happens.
I was playing around with my old Dell laptop yesterday and out of curiosity I fired up the old copy of Live 9 that I have installed on it. I don't think I've done that since I pulled its original hard disc out and replaced it with an SSD about a year ago, and I was curious to see how long it would take to load Ableton. It used to be leadenly slow (something on the order of two and a half minutes) which I suspect was because the original hard disc's management software wasn't compatible with Windows 10—the machine came with Windows 7 installed on it, which should tell you how ancient it is. But the load time for Ableton was shocking.
It took around two seconds. And loading an old set from the SSD took about the same length of time. That's WAY better performance than I'm getting from my current studio machine, and that has an SSD for its C: drive too.
The difference, though, is that everything Ableton uses on the laptop is stored on its SSD. This is not the case for the studio PC. There, the Live sets (the audio recordings and MIDI information) are currently stored on my F: drive, which is a 7200 rpm 2TB hard disc. When a set uses more than a dozen audio tracks, I have been seeing "sample offline" captions on them while Live loads the set. What's worse, all of my sample libraries and plug-ins are stored on my D: drive, a 4TB hard disc drive that only spins at 5600 rpm.
You can probably see where this is going. I've decided to upgrade the two hard drives in the studio machine that could be faster to see if doing so has much of an effect on its performance. I'm going to have to do this piecemeal, because I can't afford to splash out on giant SSDs any more, but I can just about run to the cheaper of the two steps this month: replacing the 2TB drive with an SSD. So this afternoon I ended up archiving most of my old Ableton sets to a slower but much newer (and larger) hard drive. When the new SSD arrives I'll plug it into the studio PC via USB and clone what's left on drive F: on to it, then swap it for the old drive.
And then we'll see what happens...
I'm sitting here, listening to Exotic Monsters, the splendid new TOP THIRTY album from Laura Kidd, a.k.a. Penfriend which is playing loudly on the big audio system as I try to inject some energy into today's proceedings. I'm trying—and largely failing—to get my head together after a night of deeply unpleasant anxiety dreams that followed, one after another, for the entire night. They were punctuated by fleeting moments of wakefulness that didn't last long enough to disperse the oppressive mood the dreams left me with—but which really brought home to me the etymology of the word "restless". Last night I had a really nasty night; my subconscious is clearly in a pretty horrendous state at the moment. Even though the dreams themselves have faded, the emotional core of them lingers on; the overall impression I have is one of isolation, rejection and abandonment. After being on my own for almost the entirety of the twenty-six years I've lived here, I thought I'd come to terms with a solitary existence. But it appears that my mind is trying to explain to me that quite frankly it is not okay with the lack of attention that the world is paying to its creative efforts, and it's being less than subtle about how it makes the point.
Even after a pint of coffee this morning I feel unsettled and profoundly discombobulated. And I'm exhausted: it was hard to summon enough energy to get out of bed. The optimistic mood that I felt at the end of last week that was evident in my last blog post dissipated much faster than expected and now I feel dissipated, too.
I get my second vaccine shot next week. As soon as I've recovered from that, I will be heading to the doctor's, because I am rather obviously not in a good way at the moment. I haven't felt this miserable for quite a while, either mentally or physically.
But I have (at long last) concluded that there is a correlation between my mood and whether I am losing or gaining weight. I've lost several pounds this week, which is good news; it's just that doing so has wrecked my fragile mental equilibrium. I suspect that what caused last night's feelings of self-loathing was that I ended up bingeing on carbs (I ate an entire bag of microwave popcorn after dinner because I still felt hungry) and this morning when I weighed myself, my recent streak of weight loss had—somewhat predictably—reversed itself. I need to get myself in better shape. Assuming that I do eventually get called for surgery at some point in the distant future, I need to have built up a reserve of physical resilience so that my recovery time is less. I recently dug out an old set of dumbbells from my days in Milton Keynes (which my now ex-wife bought) and I have been doing a few gentle sets of curls and lifts. I started using them because I want to avoid the issue I had last summer during Fifty/Ninety where playing the guitar became so painful that I had to stop for a few weeks. I also want to build up some core strength, because it's pretty much non-existent at the moment. The good news is that doing curls has already had a noticeable effect on my arms, particularly on my biceps, and I am no longer experiencing any pain in my elbows after I've spent a couple of hours playing guitar in the studio.
But I can only do so much to address my physical fitness when I'm stuck indoors. The weather has been rubbish for the greater part of this month. Earlier this week the Met Office were already talking about this being the wettest May on record and with spending most of the last four weeks indoors, I have become even more sedentary in my habits. And that's not good for me. I need to become more active, and get more exercise than just lifting weights a couple of times a day. Although that's a simple thing to type here in the blog, I know from painful experience that it's much more difficult to put into practice.
As with the rest of life at the moment, I will just have to grit my teeth and get on with it. And isn't that just about the most British thing ever?
I've had a pretty miserable time of things this month. I've been in a lot of discomfort and sleep has become so difficult that I have been left in a state of permanent exhaustion. So when I woke up this morning, it took me a few moments to realise that I felt weird. Something was very different. I felt rested, relaxed and comfortable.
I suspect that the sudden absence of some (but sadly not all) of the more unpleasant symptoms I've been experiencing lately has a lot to do with the fact that I passed a small kidney stone yesterday afternoon. It was only a couple of millimetres across, which is nowhere near the size of the main body that is still lodged in my left kidney, but it was big enough for me to feel it move from one side of my bladder to the other whenever I turned over in bed in the last couple of mornings. I should explain that a kidney stone is not the soft, well-rounded pebble sort of mineral deposit that usually springs to mind when people hear the word "stone"—far from it: kidney stones are sharp, stabby little buggers that consist mainly of pointy crystals of calcium oxalate. When they move about inside you, you can't help but notice. Trust me: they are the sort of thing that is most definitely better out than in and only a fellow sufferer knows the thrill of pleasure that comes with hearing the tiny "tink" noise made by a stone hitting the porcelain of your toilet...
The very pleasant feeling of mild wooziness persisted through breakfast today. I feel nicely chilled, and not at all hung over, definitely not—even if I may have joined GMH for a glass of wine or two over the road yesterday evening. It was lovely to see her once again. Yesterday was the first time we've met up since Christmas 2019.
But I am taking things slowly today because I'd rather like my present relaxed state to continue. Another few nights' sleep like the one I had last night would be extremely welcome. Dislodging any more kidney stone fragments would soon put paid to that.
After a week of not doing very much, I think I might be feeling a bit better. The uncertainty stems from my physical condition, which remains rubbish, but I'm not as stressed or anxious as I was; yesterday's trip to the supermarket felt almost commonplace. The place was almost empty, which helped matters a lot. The reason that Sainsbury's was empty was probably because there was a quite spectacular thunderstorm going on at the time. That did lend the trip an air of drama that it doesn't usually have.
But after being stuck at home for a couple of years, I have a tendency to overthink things. A case in point:
Earlier this week I was delighted to be asked to join in a Zoom call about various aspects of learning and development by an old friend of mine from my days in academia. It was a very interesting chat, but afterwards I found myself worrying about whether or not my input to the call had been good enough (because I'm rusty, and I suffer from imposter syndrome at the best of times) and stressing over whether or not to get involved in any proper work that might arise as a result of our discussions (because burnout). And at that point I had to catch myself: why was I reacting so negatively to the prospect of being asked to dust off the expertise and know-how I've built up over the best part of forty years and getting the chance to do something productive once again? And believe me, it was a very negative reaction: the word "terror" was the first one that sprang to mind as I wrote this paragraph. It didn't matter that I was genuinely highly pleased that I'd been asked to participate. It didn't matter that my ego had been pleasantly flattered by the invitation to share my knowledge. All I could hear was a frantic inner voice yelling at me that this felt like I was doing proper work again, and that was bad because I am still trying to recover from the last time I did that.
As a result, I've been thinking a lot about burnout this week. I know I've been suffering from it; it takes very little effort for me to reach the point of sheer mental and physical exhaustion. For example, it has taken me a couple of days just to recover from the two hours I spent doing the gardening on Tuesday morning (and it was totally worth it, because I can look out of the kitchen window without feeling guilty about the state of the back garden, but there were several times as I cleared the patio where I had to sit down and catch my breath). I've written on the blog several times in recent months about the "brain fog" that descends on me every few weeks. Even if the prospect of doing so were to arise (and I hasten to add that it hasn't done so yet; this is me overthinking things), I doubt very much that I'd be capable of much sustained physical or intellectual effort right now.
But even though I can justifiably claim that thanks to my continuing ill health I am worried about committing to any imagined project which might require more than the occasional ad hoc chat, and even though the call on Monday was a fascinating one (and it fully engaged my interest and all the enthusiasm I could muster), I was shocked by the turmoil I felt inside. This went way beyond burnout. This was PTSD. I don't think my last job was that bad, but one particular project I'd worked on there went pear-shaped because instead of the development team being allowed to use the expertise that we'd been all recruited for, we were told in no uncertain terms how we should proceed. The final design was a fait accompli dictated to us from on high, and the team all knew from the outset that it wouldn't work. So when a similar idea was discussed during Monday's call, I was—and I am not making this up—having flashbacks.
That project ended up in development hell because there were some very large egos involved; deferring to the subject matter experts was never going to happen. The team's lives weren't intentionally being made miserable, it was just a side-effect of the way things were managed. There have been other times in my career when I've been unfortunate enough to work in teams where the management approach to motivating people could only be described as deliberately abusive. I am in no way suggesting that the people involved in Monday's discussions would fall into either of the above categories (I'm certain they wouldn't), but my emotions clearly feel quite strongly about never ever letting myself end up in that sort of situation again. I have, quite literally, been traumatised. And aside from the PTSD, my body is still suffering from the physical abuse which I subjected it to in my last job. Take it from someone who knows: regularly spending four hours a day driving to and from work will make you very ill.
Monday's call prompted me to think about whether or not it was time for me to put myself back on the employment market; whether I'd be physically capable of commuting to an office every day; and whether or not I'd even want to do such a thing. I thought I'd be more equivocal about matters, but the answer was a resounding, immediate, and unambiguous "Hell, no". I need to get my health sorted out before I even consider taking on a commitment like that, should I be fortunate enough for one to turn up.
It took me long enough to learn the lesson that I mustn't let myself feel pressured into agreeing to do something when I know my interests would be better served by not doing so. If I won't be able to give something a decent shot (let's face it, I'm certainly not operating at anywhere near my "best shot" levels these days) then saying no is clearly the right thing to do. "As and when" is my preferred approach to life at the moment.
Because it's all I can manage.
I really thought that I'd be in a better state of mind than this after two years of decompressing. It really sucks. But then I remind myself that the last two years have brought with them their own particular blend of stress, anxiety, and mortal danger so perhaps expecting myself to be even remotely on top of things at the moment is just being silly.
I ended up having plenty of music to share on tonight's live stream on Twitch. Over the last couple of days I have written an instrumental piece—currently titled "Side Two"—that lasts for fifteen minutes. I played it on the show together with a more reasonably-sized piece called "Chasing Latency" because that's pretty much what I've been doing over the last few days.
I'm still having problems getting my Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 Mk 2 to do what I was expecting it to be able to do, which is to handle the audio inputs and outputs in my DAW seamlessly, without distorting the sound and without it needing to have its audio buffer reset every couple of minutes. Maybe those expectations were naive, but I think that they're perfectly reasonable. My audio interface does not appear to share the same opinion.
The only way I could get the thing to stay up for tonight's show was to freeze all the MIDI tracks in the Ableton Live sets beforehand and believe me: as I said on the show, having to do that really cramps my style when I'm trying to put a piece of music together. It's not that helpful when you're trying to explain how you recorded it either, as you'll see.
Yes, I had a bit of fun with the fact that as I'm a nerd I'm using an industrial surveillance camera (which has a night vision mode) as my main webcam. It's what all the cool kids are doing.
As I announced on the show, I'm going to take a break from doing any live streams for a couple of weeks. I am also going to try to be less obsessed about making music every single day; tonight I found the dust cover for my Mackie mixer and it's now in place so that if I walk into the studio thinking about maybe spending another day or two making new music, it will remind me that I need to not do that. I should focus on decompressing for a bit. I am not in good shape at the moment.
But even if it hasn't made me feel better, I have cheered myself up tonight by declaring that the video above is the last thing that I'm going to upload to YouTube. When I talked about my experiences with their content checking algorithm a few days ago, I really wasn't expecting the chorus of horror stories that I got from my creator friends. The amount of "me too!" messages I got, and the sort of treatment they'd received from YouTube was scary. And then, of course, there was my experience a few months ago with the record producer douchebag who used my content in *his* shows without asking. Much to absolutely nobody's surprise, absolutely nothing he promised afterwards ever happened. So yes, I'm done with YouTube. If you want to see my shows from now on, please head over to my Twitch channel.
I found out why my keyboard wasn't responding: it appeared to be something to do with the way Ableton stores which track is active separately to which track is armed when it saves a live set. Once I'd reselected the last track I'd been working on, I could use its transport controls once again.
I wasn't kidding when I described my current state as being one of confused exasperation yesterday. I should have spotted what was causing the problem instantly. But so many bits of my studio gear have been misbehaving of late (particularly the Native Instruments stuff) that I instantly assumed the worst—that it had broken. And that says a lot about my mental health right now, doesn't it? I think I will be paying a visit to the doctor's once I've had my second shot of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which is due in three weeks or so. I am very under the weather at the moment.
But my audio interface still craps out when my projects push things too hard, and I'm really not pushing things that hard by comparison to some of the other people I know who use Ableton. I have run out of changes I can make to my system, and I no longer have any more peripherals that I'm prepared to do without in order to improve the interface's performance. Which means that my earlier comment a couple of days ago that the thing is not fit for purpose still stands; if anything, my experiences as I fuss over my studio setup over the last few days have provided further confirmation of the fact.
Which is good for me, as it means that I have not experienced a single twinge of buyer's remorse about buying a more expensive audio interface to replace the Native Instruments one. I am eagerly awaiting its arrival, even if it won't get here for another month.
So I'll be back upstairs making music for the rest of today and making careful note of how many times things go wrong. With my present setup I think I've reached the state where I can't get the failure rate any lower than it already is. It's resolutely non-zero, which sucks, but I hope I've got it down to a level that I can deal with for a few weeks.
In recent weeks I've noticed that I'm happier doing my live stream shows when I have a bunch of new music to play to people. That's lovely and very rewarding, but the problems that I've experienced with the studio this week have made me realise just how obsessed I've become with ensuring that I have new music ready for my followers every week. If you've been reading the blog for any length of time you've probably already come to the same conclusion.
I suspect that part of the reason for this behaviour is that I'm using the music-making as a substitute for having a job. I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing so long as I let myself relax from time to time and take the occasional day off. But I have become so focused on producing content recently that I've been working on music every day of the week for months at a stretch. I regularly lose track of what day of the week it is because weekends and weekdays are all dedicated to the same thing: making music. I wouldn't accept that level of effort if it was expected of me in a work context, would I? And as I'm very definitely not in good enough shape mentally or physically to hold down a full-time job working for anyone else right now, why is it (I found myself wondering this morning) that I should expect to hold one down by working, more or less unpaid, for myself?
And once I'd framed the question like that, it became very clear that one of the reasons I'm not in great shape at the moment is that I have been ignoring the signs that I have let myself get completely carried away with things. I need to ease up a bit. I've spent most of the year so far pushing myself to behave as if everything's fine and normal, while at the same time being abundantly aware that things are anything but normal, or fine. They very clearly aren't.
It sounds vaguely ridiculous to claim that I'm in need of some r'n'r when I spend every day shut in at home not working, and I am well aware that, despite my problems, I'm far more fortunate than lots of other people right now. But I think I need to make sure that every now and again I just switch everything off, unplug my gear, and do something that's relaxing and restorative which doesn't involve the studio. I've neglected to do that for the past few months, and it's taken its toll.
My computer's performance continues to be well below what I expected. Last night, I took the radical step of disconnecting an entire USB hub's worth of cameras and other peripherals that I decided, in my current state of confused exasperation, that I could do without. This morning I moved my Komplete Audio 6 audio interface to the other side of my desk so that I could connect it to my PC with a shorter USB cable. That meant having to swap out various audio cables, because the current ones didn't reach and oh look, there's most of the day wasted doing stuff that wouldn't be necessary if my gear just bloody worked like it was supposed to.
You even can hear things crapping out, live on air as I played my new track Disruptor on last night's show—a song that was, somewhat ironically, written as a response to the instability I have been experiencing with my setup in recent days. Given the unstable state of my system (and, quite frankly, of me as well) last night, I brought the show to a close after just over an hour. It's enough to drive a musician to drink; I just felt like screaming, curling up into a ball, and giving up on creative pursuits altogether. After a day spent faffing about still further today, I still feel the same way. At least YouTube deigned to allow me to upload my own content this time around without telling me it was actually written by Serge Gainsbourg; YouTube are still very definitely not in my good books at the moment.
So now I am about to head back upstairs and try to figure out why Ableton has stopped responding to my Komplete Kontrol MIDI controller. If it's not one thing, it's another...
The booster stage of China's Long March rocket, used to place the first module of their Tianhe-1 space station into orbit on April 29th, made an uncontrolled reentry last night and from the reports I've seen, it came down somewhere west of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Oh, and ignore the "footage" in the tweets in that article, which rather obviously shows an aircraft leaving a contrail, as does almost every other over-excited "Footage of Chinese rocket!!!" tweet which I've seen on Twitter this morning. With any luck, any bits that made it to the ground did so well away from urban areas with cellphone coverage, and splashed harmlessly into the water.
Which is a bit of luck, because the booster was a hunk of metal about thirty metres long, with a mass of approximately twenty-one metric tonnes and just hours before it fell to Earth, estimates of where it was going to come down included stretches of southern Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey.
We dodged something moving a lot faster than a bullet this time (to get into Low Earth Orbit, you need to be travelling at just over 17,000 mph or 7.6 kilometres per second.) But as the number of space launches continues to increase, letting any form of rocketry fall back to Earth without any form of control becomes a dangerous lottery. Much as I detest Elon Musk, the rockets that SpaceX uses which fly themselves back to Earth and land so that they can be reused is clearly the way forward. That technology should be mandatory.
Even if you are using autonomous space vehicles, for people on the ground under the flight path (i.e. most of the planet) there will still be a non-zero risk associated with launches. Back at the end of March, one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 upper stages came down just east of Seattle. Despite being a sixth of the size of the Long March stage, several fairly hefty-sized pieces made it to the ground in Washington State. Just imagine this landing on your roof one night...
Last July my seven-year-old audio interface—a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2—crapped out on me just before I was going to go live on Twitch. I cast about a fair bit for alternative audio interfaces and I eventually settled on a Komplete Audio 6 Mk2, a unit made by Native Instruments which came on the market in 2019 and I 've been using it ever since. I was expecting a much more up-to-date unit to be an obvious advance over the first-generation Focusrite in terms of both performance (latency, which is a measure of how fast the unit can convert audio signals into digital data and vice versa; the less time it takes, the better) and the quality of audio reproduction, but if I'm honest about it, it's been a profound disappointment on both counts. To my ears, audio that I've recorded with it, particularly distorted electric guitar, sounds harsh, bordering on fizzy when compared to sound I was getting through the Scarlett.
What is worse, for the past few months the output stage on the KA6 has regularly lost the plot, producing a horrible, bitcrushed rendition of any audio that is being played back in Live 11. Changing the audio buffer size using its control panel software to reconfigure its ASIO driver will return it to normal operation for a while, but it will eventually do it again, usually at the same time as the CPU (which is a pretty hefty Intel i9-9900, which should not be struggling) starts working hard for as-yet-undetermined reasons.
I've used the fault diagnosis wizard on Native Instruments' site several times in an attempt to fix the problem. I installed the recommended LatencyMon software to see what my system was doing, I've disabled speedstepping in my PC's BIOS, I've removed all other audio drivers that were installed in Windows 10, I've tried the three most recent versions of the driver for interface, I've swapped cables and USB ports, I've switched from the "game-ready" channel for my nVidia graphics card's drivers to their lower performance but more stable "studio" channel, and I've even tried increasing the page file size for my system (which shouldn't need it, as it has 64 Gb of RAM...) After trawling the Internet for relevant discussions, posting on Native Instruments' own user forum last month, reading user forums on Reddit and elsewhere and even finding a mention of "crackling" in a review of the unit in Sound On Sound magazine I have discovered that it's a known fault with the interface. This thread on the NI forum dates back to 2019, and their response there of "We're working on it," made six months later in May 2020, obviously has yet to provide anything resembling a workaround, let alone a fix. Which is a major disappointment, not least because I have wasted hours faffing about trying to make the unit work properly. Last night, when it fell over again while I was trying to put together a new track, I finally crossed what Paul Saffo calls an item of technology's "Threshold of Indignation": I am now simply too annoyed with it to keep using it. I refuse to waste any more time trying to fix something which is quite clearly not fit for purpose. I went straight to the Native Instruments website and filled out a return request. It's less than a year old, so it's going back to the manufacturer. I will, quite frankly, be glad to see the back of it.
I have already ordered its replacement: an interface released last year from MOTU, a.k.a. The Mark Of The Unicorn. I picked the MOTU interface because they have a fine reputation in the field, I like the sound of "best in class" performance, I could really do with VU-metering on the front of the interface rather than the top (the KA6's meters looked pretty as they consist of half a dozen blue LEDs per channel, but they're pretty much useless when you're trying to set your levels) and I just happen to have a spare USB-C port on my PC which I can use to connect the unit.
But there's a catch. There always seems to be a catch with my musical endeavours. There is a shortage of high-end A/D converter chips at the moment which was caused by a fire at the main manufacturing plant in Japan last year. That means that stocks of audio interface units are sparse and it doesn't look like the MOTU will arrive until next month, which could leave me with a gap where I don't have an audio interface to connect to my computer at all—or so I thought, until I read the manual of my Mackie mixer today and realised that it can act as a basic, 2 in, 2 out USB audio interface. I've never plugged it in!
From being extremely down in the dumps last weekend I have improved somewhat this week. I'm still pretty low; I'm still physically not in a good way at all, to the point that just getting out of bed in the morning hurts, but at least I am back to being up and dressed by ten in the morning. Yesterday, I quadrupled my recent average step count by walking to the polling station and back (local government elections took place across the UK yesterday.) And this week I've been using my weights to try and build up my core strength, which I have really let slide over the past eighteen months or so. Just doing basic lifts with them—or rather, discovering that I couldn't—was a bit of a wake-up call, so I'm going to be working on improving my physical fitness somewhat harder than I have been of late.
And who doesn't want a nice rush of endorphins from getting the blood flowing again? In a restrained, low-impact fashion, I hasten to add; I'm not going to go nuts. I've heard too many stories of people taking up keep fit later in life, working out at the gym, and dying from a heart attack shortly afterwards, including the writer Douglas Adams and my cousin Peter. I do not want to end my days in such a fashion.
The theme of mortality cropped up during last night's show, because one of the pieces of music that I wrote this week was an examination of what we will be remembered for after we're gone. Yes, that's the kind of frame of mind I've been in this week. Like I said, I'm still feeling rather low.
And yet, if you were to judge my professionalism solely by the vastly reduced number of edits that I had to make for the version of the show I have just uploaded to YouTube, last night's effort on my Twitch channel was bordering on slick. When two people asked me (without prompting) where they could get hold of the music that I was playing, it was very satisfying to be able to launch the album, right there and then, on my Bandcamp page. I was able to stay focused, stay on topic, and (I hope) give out a few tips about how I get my music to sound the way I want it to. And once the sunlight stopped shining through my window, the lights I use looked pretty spiffy, too.
I'm always more confident in front of the camera when I have plenty of new music to share on the stream, particularly when it's some of my better work. That was definitely the case last night—in my humble opinion, at least.
Besides, launching a new album is always going to give me a buzz:
I have amended the album information at the top of the page to reflect my latest release, so you've probably already seen the link, but here it is as an "official" launch announcement: my brand-new album, A Decent Harvest was released during my show on Twitch last night.
I've taken more time with these tracks than is the case during the frenzy of songwriting that takes place turing FAWM and Fifty/Ninety. Most of the tracks on the album (and there are fifteen of them, giving you an hour and 49 seconds of music) have been tweaked, rewritten, edited, and generally buffed up in a way that I thought would leave me well behind schedule for writing fifty songs in the ninety days between April 4th and July 3rd, but strangely enough that has not turned out to be the case.
There's a lesson to be learned there, I think. I'm just not sure what it might be yet.
After listening to the closing track on the album a few times, I have realised that I have somehow finally figured out how to get that lush, quintessentially "prog" bass guitar tone. The secret, it turns out, is hefty dollops of chorus and very little top end. And I'm so proud of the piece that I have taken the unprecedented step of embedding it right here in the blog, so you can listen to it right now, at the click of a mouse. Enjoy!
Remember how I said last month that I'd got a copyright notice from YouTube over an original piece of music I'd written and then played on my Twitch show, which I'd archived on my YouTube account? The music that my song was supposed to sound like was an instrumental blues shuffle. Last night I played the same track on my show again, but this time with the vocals removed (so now my track is an instrumental, too.) I've just uploaded last night's show to YouTube, and guess what?
Yep: the show passed the same algorithmic checks with "no issues found." YouTube is broken. I know a bunch of people who have videos where they've performed content that is in the public domain, including compositions like Christmas carols that are hundreds of years old and not only had them flagged for copyright infringement, they've also had their appeals against the flag dismissed. But what makes me really angry is that I'm getting my own work flagged as infringing someone else's copyright and, as the notification email I got from YouTube tells me, this spurious claim gives the claimant the right to monetise my content (an opportunity that I'm denied because I don't have a large enough following, incidentally) by dropping adverts into it. This, in my view, is racketeering, plain and simple. And alarmingly, there is no higher authority to whom I can appeal for sanity. Nobody appears to have the power to tell them to fix things. As a creator, that's ringing alarm bells for me. A LOT of alarm bells. Telling me that other people can make money off my work but at the same time saying I can't is, frankly, like waving a red rag at a bull. I'm not having it.
So: I've decided that after archiving livestream #52 next week, I will be taking a break from uploading any further content to YouTube. I haven't decided yet whether that will be a permanent decision, but if it is, I will remove all my existing content from the site.
So, for the moment, here is last night's show. Watch it while you can.
Yesterday's brain fog didn't lift, so I ended up spending a couple of hours in the evening dusting off an old favourite: Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties and playing the Delhi home city for a couple of hours. Setting a horde of battle elephants loose across the map was very satisfying and not too intellectually challenging.
I wouldn't consider myself a master strategist by any stretch of the imagination but I know that walling off most of the map for my purposes and letting the other seven civs rapidly burn through the resources that are left to them is a reliable way of ensuring military superiority, because in every iteration of the AOE franchise, the secret to success is to prioritise your economy. Some of the player AIs are smart enough to attack the wall and let their gatherers through the breach to collect wood (they never seem to bother with food or minerals), but oddly, only two or three of them ever seem to do this during any given game. Having a couple of groups of rapid response military units positioned by the wall is enough to ward them off; that leaves fewer enemies to engage when I start the final push and use my main force (which includes as many native allies as I can muster with every upgrade I can give them combined with heavy artillery mounted on elephants, oh yes) to wipe the other players off the map. Most satisfying.
But AOE III is an old game. The base pack was released way back in 2005 and even The Asian Dynasties expansion came out in 2007. Although the game runs in native 4K resolution on my system, the look and feel is showing its age. It's still great fun to play, but when I play it these days it does leave me wondering what a new version of the game would be like. With the demise of Ensemble Games many years ago, I'd given up any hope of ever seeing a version of the game able to use the processing power and graphics abilities of modern systems, but a couple of months ago I stumbled across a trailer online for Age of Empires IV.
Somewhat predictably, the new game abandons the static, hovering camera view of the earlier games in favour of something a lot more dynamic (I really hope that the option to revert to the old view is available, because it's such a signature feature of the game.) Units are much more detailed, but to show off all those extra polygons the developers have changed the camera behaviour and made it get in a lot closer to the action. That reduces your ability to see the wider state of battles (kind of an important ability in a real time strategy game) or of your home city as an integrated unit. As a result, the gameplay—in the trailer on the game's website, at least—looks more reminiscent of games such as The Elder Scrolls than its predecessors in the AOE franchise. It might say AOE on the box, but it doesn't look like it on the screen. I haven't decided yet whether I like this or not.
But will I be getting myself a copy? You bet I will!
The Met Office confirmed yesterday that last month saw the lowest minimum temperatures for the UK in April since 1922 and the third lowest since their records began, way back in 1884. And that trend is continuing: last night the temperature in my back garden dropped to -2°C once again.
As the Met Office article in the link explains, this was caused by a series of regions of high pressure sitting over the UK during the month. High pressure means clear skies, and clear skies mean that temperatures fall quickly at night. Clear skies also mean dry weather, and April saw many parts of the country getting less than 25% of average rainfall for the month.
As our climate changes, the weather gets increasingly weird. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) has had vast amounts of fresh water from ice melt added to it in the last five years, and that is changing the way that one of the largest processes for distributing temperature from the equator to the poles operates. Part of that process is the Gulf Stream, which is now flowing more weakly than it has done for more than a thousand years. The UK owes its mild climate to the heat brought here from the equator by the Gulf Stream. If it gets disrupted (and some climate models predict that it could become unstable or even shut down entirely by the year 2100), our weather may change in significant ways. Frosty nights in May could end up being the least of our worries...
I have just finished reading Tony Wilson's "Twenty Four Hour Party People" and my goodness me, what an objectionable man he seems to have been. As a character study of a quite grotesquely overinflated ego, it's hard to beat. I've known a few narcissists in my time, and the book is riddled with many depressingly familiar traits. Few narcissists I've met have had much by way of business acumen or good judgment, despite considering themselves to be uniquely talented geniuses. Wilson had a notorious talent for turning every victory into a resounding defeat (although to his credit, he does acknowledge the fact that every copy of New Order's massive smash hit Blue Monday cost Factory Records more money to make than they got back from selling it). In the fashion of a truly first-rate chancer, Wilson took the existing screenplay for the film of the same name that starred Steve Coogan as him (which was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce), added a few details, and passed it off as his autobiography. Let some other poor sod do the hard work, eh To? Wilson just loves to remind the reader that he was a Cambridge graduate, although he had a less-than-distinguished academic career. But all through the book, he mocks the reader's presumed inferior knowledge of literature. If he had a mantra, I'm sure he would have liked us to think that it was "You should read more."
But that is exactly what I have been doing this year. With a third of the year behind us, I am half-way to hitting my target of reading sixty books as my Goodreads challenge. As of today, that puts me eleven books ahead of schedule. Last year I struggled to keep on target, but that was because I'd rather foolishly embarked on the misguided and protracted enterprise of reading James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and make sense of it. This year my choices have, on the whole, been considerably more lightweight.
I've got one or two weightier books lined up, though. My current lead is unlikely to persist through the summer.
But I really need to force myself to be more physically active. Over the last month or so I feel like I've been in a bit of a decline and not even the prospect of the UK beginning to come out of lockdown is lifting my spirits; rather, it's just making me anxious. I'm stressed, and it's really affecting me both physically and mentally. Just going for a walk feels like a much bigger challenge than sitting in a chair and reading a lot of books at the moment. I have little to no energy and this weekend I am really not feeling great at all. I know I need to be more resilient, but right now everything's feeling a bit fragile.
I hate feeling like this. It's not who I am, or at least it's not who I want to be.
Even thinking seems like too much work at the moment. This morning I sat in my bedroom studio for nearly an hour thinking about recording some music, but I haven't got beyond the thinking stage so far today. My enthusiasm levels are at rock bottom, although somehow I managed to muster up enough energy to change the bedclothes and do some laundry.
I will be sticking with the winter duvet for at least another month, though. And keeping the heavy fleece blanket on top of it as well. We're still getting frosts overnight here (the temperature fell to -2°C last night) and although there's some warmth in the sunshine, when it appears—it's a rather nice 20°C in the conservatory right now—the temperatures rapidly drop back down after dark.
Even so, the cherry tree in the back garden and the Virginia creeper on the house came into leaf over the last few days. And the magnolia appears to be following suit despite all its blossoms getting destroyed by frost last month. I hope that's a sign that the weather will soon start getting kinder.